Review: Bonnie Raitt reconnects with her Philly fan base at the Mann
The 'Just Like That... Tour' brought Philadelphia favorite Raitt to town behind her first album since 2016, and Lucinda Williams performed here for the first time since suffering a stroke in 2020.
The Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams double bill at the Mann Center Wednesday spotlighted two women making music steeped in the blues who continue to create at a high level decades into careers of remarkable duration.
Raitt was the big draw, and for good reason. Her excellent, emotionally wrenching new album, Just Like That… is her first in six years. And the 72-year-old singer and slide guitarist extraordinaire’s special relationship with Philadelphia audiences reaches back long before 1989′s Nick of Time turned her into a superstar.
Raitt lived here in the late 1960s, when she played clubs like the Second Fret in Center City and learned from blues greats like Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.
Her 90-minute set accompanied by highly accomplished longtime associates like drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson — all of whom were introduced twice by Raitt, one of the world’s most gracious bandleaders — was a Philly love fest.
Early on, before a swaggering “No Business” from 1991′s Luck of the Draw that included a shout-out to the song’s writer, John Hiatt, Raitt said being at the Mann “feels like home.” She credited the Philly soul groove of the Nick of Time title track with changing her life.
And toward the end of the evening, after a beautifully rendered version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” she called her relationship with fans “sacred” going back all the way to shows she played in Pennypack Park in the ‘60s.
(For the record, it was the second time Pennypack Park shows of yore were mentioned from the Mann stage in the last month. When Northeast Philly native Donna Rose Haim joined her daughter on stage, she mentioned seeing Hall & Oates there.)
For an artist with such a formidable catalog, Raitt put plenty of focus on her fine new material, playing fully half of the rock-solid and worldly wise Just Like That ....
Much of that was moving, including “Livin’ For The Ones,” a “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-ish rocker written with George Marinelli, who, along with Duke Levine, is one of the band’s two sterling lead guitarists. That is, besides Raitt, who played precise, stinging, casually masterful slide guitar all night long.
The song mourned friends and loved ones lost, “not just to COVID,” Raitt said, but also chronological contemporaries that have died. It did so, however, by carrying on in celebration of their spirit, “livin’ for the ones who didn’t make it.”
More powerful still was the title song of Just Like That …., a Raitt composition partly inspired by Prine and based on a story in a TV news report about a woman’s first meeting with a man who received a transplanted heart from her late son.
Raitt delivered the song with forthright, fully engaged compassion and a tender ache that made the moment in the song when the woman hears her son’s heart beating in another man’s chest spring to life.
Like all the ballads Raitt sang, Mike Reid’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was also particularly good.
Williams’ opening hour-long set was her first area performance since the 69-year-old masterful storytelling songwriter suffered a stroke in November of 2020. A roadie walked her out on stage — and walked her off, after she closed with a blistering “Joy.” She did not play guitar at all.
But otherwise, her performance was unaffected. She fronted a terrific five-piece band that featured Stuart Mathis on guitar and Butch Norton on drums.
Like Raitt, she drew from the blues and other roots music idioms, but their approaches widely differ. Whereas Raitt’s ensemble is pristine, Williams’ band plays loose and dirty, leaning into country and causing a commotion well-suited to the hurt heard in the singer’s gloriously frayed voice.
Williams’ songs play like a travelogue of heartache, rambling around the American South. On Wednesday, she took the audience along to New Orleans in the swaying “Crescent City” (a new addition to the set that seemed to surprise the band).
And she delighted in the reciting of evocative place names in “Lake Charles” and “Drunken Angel,” two songs from her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
The song most recently recorded by Williams in her set was also the oldest written: The reworked version of “You Can’t Rule Me,” a composition by the great Delta blues woman Memphis Minnie that dates to the 1930s and is the lead track on Williams’ fired-up 2020 album Good Souls Better Angels.
“You Can’t Rule Me” works as both a song of feminist empowerment and anti-authoritarian defiance. Its title was emblazoned on T-shirts for sale at Williams’ merch stand.
And it was also the second Memphis Minnie song sung in three days at the Mann. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss did “When the Levee Breaks,” the MM original that Plant’s band Led Zeppelin took to the bank, on Sunday. Long live Memphis Minnie!
A note about mobile phone policy during Raitt’s set. Photography was not permitted, and that warning was noted for the (vast minority) of people who held paper tickets. You could also learn it by scrolling all the way down on the concert’s page on the Mann website and clicking on “More info.”
But that messaging was not clearly delivered to the people in the seats, who have grown accustomed to to taking pictures and shooting video as they wish at the Mann and other venues.
That might be aggravating to other concertgoers and performers, but music fans have been taught that they’re allowed to do it. On Wednesday, there was no public address announcement that this show would be any different.
As a result, on Wednesday, security at the Mann were tasked with prowling aisles with flashlights, looking for concertgoers who dared to even take phones out of their pockets, much less hold them up to take a picture. It was overzealous, to say the least. If you want people to follow the rules, you need to tell them what they are.