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September 19, 2012
Bonnie Raitt brings chops, friskiness to Mondavi Center show

By Greg Lucas

Special to The Bee

Revisiting musicians who have been performing for multiple decades can produce mixed results. Chops might be a bit choppy. The set list appears drawn exclusively from the years when red, white and blue striped Levi's bell-bottoms were king. Just kinda iPhoning it in.

But at the other end of the spectrum is a singularly uplifting affirmation that though much is taken, much abides, as Al Tennyson would say. That here's an artist still on a forward trajectory, celebrating the journey but pushing on toward new musical destinations.

Bonnie Raitt's performance Tuesday night at the Mondavi Center was way the latter and so not even remotely near the former. Her musicianship and frisky bonhomie - "frisky being one of my favorite sports," she allowed - has been demonstrated on stages for more than 40 years.

Delightfully intact at UC Davis, that generosity and connection were shared equally with her tightly coiled band, her opening act -- the marvelous Mavis Staples -- and, of course, the audience.

In front of an artfully lit backdrop of horizontal slats in front of stony towers, Raitt praised the venue, urged the audience to appreciate the standout work of other band members and bitched briefly about menopause.

She and her band also treated the 1,800-person crowd to the better part of two hours of inspired blues, funk, gumbo and Raitt's swampy signature tunes.

A particular target of her friendly gibes was longtime guitarist George Marinelli, who turned Raitt's age - 62 -- an hour after the band's set concluded Tuesday night.

When Raitt wanted to start a song and Marinelli was still tuning, she said: "We all know what doddering is about." Rather than doddering, Raitt said she would stay moist from hot flashes: "It's nice being your own microclimate."

A better example of her generosity was stepping out to trade vocals with Staples on a rollicking, slide-guitar-steeped "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

Dressed in black pants and a black blouse with aquamarine accents, Raitt was clearly having fun, rolling out familiar tunes like "Something to Talk About," "Have a Heart" and "Thing Called Love" and then offering up a haunting version of Bob Dylan's "Million Miles From You," from Raitt's latest album, "Slipstream," from which a goodly chunk of her set was drawn.

Also featured from "Slipstream" was its opening song, "Used to Rule the World" and the album's hit, a reworking of the late Gerry Rafferty's 1978 tune, "Right Down the Line," which live was less reggae-lacious than the studio version.

In addition to Marinelli, who offers frilly counterpoint to Raitt's slide, or growls sonorously when she plays acoustic guitar, Raitt is blessed with a veteran band that, in the main, has worked together for decades. The new guy is Mike Finnegan, who isn't exactly callow, having played with Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Raitt and the band let Finnegan air it on several songs, including "Million Miles from You."

If a complaint were to be lodged, it's a request for more snaky, scalding, sinuous slide -- very, very much more. Like maybe all slide all the time. The red-haired Rock and Roll Hall of Famer can rev up into swirling spirals or coax out languorous lament - and all kinds of wondrous stuff in between. Yes, a band is a collaboration, but slide as breathtaking as Raitt's solo on "Come to Me," from "Luck of the Draw," needs to be heard far more in this world.

The emotional pinnacle of Raitt's set was her take on John Prine 's "Angel From Montgomery," which she dedicated to her mother, Marjorie Haydock, the musical director for her father, Broadway star John Raitt. Her mom never got her due, Raitt said, and poured that sentiment into her reading of the song, which left a number of listeners with tear-stained cheeks. It helps that the story is more compelling when voiced by a woman, since an "old woman" is the main character. But Raitt going a cappella on the first verse sealed the deal.

Casting back to the much-is-taken-much-abides theme, Staples, 73, still rocks deliciously hard. After one of her signatures, "The Weight," by The Band, she exhorted the crowd to give it up for Levon Helm, who she said was in a better place.

From the Staple Singers' more than 50-year-old playbook came the still fresh and inspiring "Freedom Highway," written by Staples' father "Pops" in 1962 for the march from Selma to Montgomery. She's still walking, Staples told the crowd, and they should be, too.

Staples closed her set with an inspired call-and-answer version of the extraordinary 40-year-old "I'll Take You There," which seems one-third spiritual, one-third protest song and one-third saucy invitation.

For photos of the concert, go here.

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