Bonnie Raitt performs at the Greek Theatre. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
Bonnie Raitt began her encore Saturday night at the Greek Theatre with what might be her most well-known song.
"I Can't Make You Love Me" here shared much with Raitt's 1991 studio recording. Set to a ballad tempo and arranged around a rippling piano part, the tune (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin) has been covered in recent years by a new generation of tradition-minded pop stars, including Adele and Bon Iver, both of whom she thanked Saturday for bringing it to the attention of fresh ears.
But Saturday, Raitt took significant liberties with the song, which depicts the end of a romance in language almost entirely drained of promise. She elongated certain lines and altered her phrasing in others, savoring the sumptuous melody as well as the deep resignation in the words.
"Morning will come and I'll do what's right," she sang, "Just give me till then to give up this fight."
Utterly (and gorgeously) dejected, Raitt's performance of the song felt out of step with the rest of Saturday's frisky and headstrong concert — and with Raitt's four-decade career, during which she's never conceded defeat. The show was her first performance in Los Angeles since the release of April's "Slipstream," an album that's been widely described as a comeback effort (it's her first record since 2005).
A good deal of that has to do with Raitt's recruitment of the producer Joe Henry, who's also overseen recent late-in-the-game work by Solomon Burke and Mose Allison; on "Slipstream" he sets up Raitt, 62, with age-aware material like his and Loudon Wainwright III's "You Can't Fail Me Now" and "Million Miles" by Bob Dylan.
Yet Raitt herself seemed to endorse the revival narrative at the Greek.
"The best part of taking a break is coming back," she said after "Used to Rule the World," a funky Randall Bramblett tune from the new album about facing down obsolescence; later, she suggested that her recent hiatus might be her last: "I hope I'm coming out here singing 'Something to Talk About' with a walker."
Backed with expert precision by her longtime road band — guitarist George Marinelli, bassist Hutch Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar and keyboardist Mike Finnigan — Raitt embodied that spirit of cheerful perseverance throughout her main set, which interspersed cuts from "Slipstream" among older songs such as "Love Sneakin' Up on You" and "Come to Me."
In a reggae-fied version of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" she emphasized lyrics about surviving dark nights and crazy dreams, and she started out "Angel from Montgomery" by John Prine free of accompaniment, proudly showing off her voice's texture in a tune that opens with the line "I am an old woman."
The music was embracing experience — and lots of it — at the same time that it was rejecting the submission built into "I Can't Make You Love Me."
Just before her encore Raitt brought guitarist Johnny Lee Schell onstage, who'd played on 1989's Grammy-sweeping "Nick of Time." (It was the comeback album before "Slipstream," remember?) Saturday was Schell's 60th birthday, Raitt said, so to celebrate she asked him to play on "Thing Called Love," the upbeat John Hiatt tune from "Nick of Time" that sounded as sly as it ever has on Saturday.