POP MUSIC REVIEW : Raitt Comforts, Reassures

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bonnie Raitt may be our foremost singer of the secular gospel, someone whose songs of hopes dashed, deferred and realized at last encompass the broad leap from mid-life crisis to mid-life catharsis. To many, many thousands among the post-30 set, her comforting voice and assured, resilient presence are a kind of living, loving, been-there counsel. Hey, it's cheaper than therapy.

And greasier too.

"Here's to middle age!" said the ebullient blues-rock singer during her second encore Friday night at Universal Amphitheatre, standing between two other veterans, John Prine and Jackson Browne. The celebratory sort these days--as a first-time newlywed, as well as first-time Grammy winner and hit maker--she's full of these kinds of toasts, which are neither particularly defiant nor embarrassed.

Not least of all, Raitt is popularly beloved because she acts her age, which isn't necessarily what we mean when we say that other people act their age. Certainly she's one of the few women (or men) in her 40s who can sing slinky songs about blooming crushes and not sound as if in the mazy midst of an embarrassing second childhood.

Probably Raitt gets away with the spry freshness of the infatuation ditties she grouped together early in the set, "Love Letter" (with teasing lines like "And you haven't even kissed me yet") and "Something to Talk About," because she's sung all those weary wronged-woman numbers too--and as such now sounds as if she's in recovery, not denial, to use the appropriate parlance.

Raitt did trot out half a dozen chestnuts from the back catalogue--less than satisfied blues statements like "Sugar Mama," "Your Good Thing Is About to End" and "Three-Time Loser"--for the 85-minute set on this first of two sold-out Universal nights. But about twice that many came from her two most recent LPs, which have done a remarkable job of marrying her customary dirty R&B; slide guitar sound with clean, slick and sensitive balladry of the heart.

Early fears that she might have been watering down her bluesier side with this approach now seem entirely unjustified. A recent ballad of woe like "Have a Heart" came off as as good a blues as any of the more obvious choices in her repertoire, even though it's marked more by gently chiming synthesizers than the 12-bar swamp rhythm she's well capable of. And, importantly, her famous slide guitar heroine-isms seem appropriate even in these contexts.

Other than a fine band, good songs, flawless pacing and well-chosen smart-aleck remarks, Raitt brings a sense of openness and generosity to her shows, not least in the way she announces nearly every songwriter responsible for her selections.

This always extends to the choice of opening acts--a little more than a year ago at Universal, respectively smooth and insane R&B; greats Charles Brown and NRBQ; this time, singer-songwriter John Prine. "Full circle, this feels like," Raitt said, closing the show with Prine on a duet of "Angel From Montgomery," which he first recorded on his debut two decades back and which she bronzed into embittered-woman classic status 17 years ago.

Prine was greeted with howled requests and sent off with a near-unanimous standing ovation, impressive given that this '70s-identified stalwart just released his first album in six years and hasn't labored with a major label in much longer than that. Terrific new songs like the semi-whimsical, divorce-themed "All the Best" in his near-hour set were given the same strong response as inevitable weeper standbys like "Hello in There" and "Sam Stone."

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