"I don't sing many positive songs," Bonnie Raitt joked to her Wiltern Theatre audience on Tuesday. "Women in grief, that's my thing."
Maybe so, but the blues-rocker's two-hour concert rarely hit a truly negative note, and not just because she was so buoyant. The singer-guitarist hailed her musician friends and reminisced about her early days playing L.A. clubs. She brought on guest performers such as slide guitarist Roy Rogers and tuba-playing old pal Freebo. She even gave her dad, Broadway star John Raitt, an early Father's Day present in the form of a brief duet.
Inspired from the beginning of her career by such Delta blues artists as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Raitt, 52, certainly knows that the blues let folks lament their troubles. But they're also about perseverance through adversity, and the songs from her current album, "Silver Lining," as well as earlier works, tended more toward themes of resilience, hope, forgiveness and devotion than unredeemed despair. Even the tune she played after making her jest, Irish songwriter Paul Brady's "Not the Only One," celebrated a healed heart rather than mourning a broken one.
She cut a slim, elegant figure with her glamorous red hair and bright green bell-sleeve sweater, but Raitt nevertheless was down-to-earth, leading her band with the casual ease of a 30-year-plus veteran. The sense in her work of bouncing back and being grateful reflected her experiences as an artist who tenaciously waited a long time for commercial success, as an activist who works for such causes as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and as a woman who has grappled with substance abuse.
Yet there were times Tuesday when you wished things were a little more down 'n' dirty. Not that such songs as the stompin' "Gnawin' on It" and the smoky "The Fundamental Things" didn't have a sexy, sinuous feel. But though she blended different styles--blues, R&B, rock, folk, African, country--into a contemporary-sounding cross between New Orleans funk-rock and Muscle Shoals soul-pop, most of the edges were smoothed over (though never slick) to be easily digestible for her mainstream fans.
Her masterful slide-guitar work provided most of the grit, and when Raitt did cut loose, crouching to the stage floor as if to better reach gut level, you could imagine her really letting it rip. Yet too often the tasty riffs became overly tasteful, and her fine four-piece band could not do much to liven up some of the less compelling material.
Still, there were riveting moments that proved soothing and obliquely spoke to these troubled times. The David Gray-penned "Silver Lining" was a pulsing, watery call to appreciate the magic of life. And Raitt's pointed rendition of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," from her 1973 album "Takin' My Time," nicely pulled together her different threads of interest.
When she sang the line "Everybody's cryin' peace on earth, just as soon as we win this war," it became a heartfelt commentary on the world's precarious state.