Good Friday can feel grim for many, but Friday felt very good indeed for mostly-boomer-vintage rock fans filling Albany’s Palace Theater to see Bonnie Raitt and longtime friends NRBQ.
Compressing 12 songs into just 40 minutes, NRBQ introduced new numbers from “Dragnet,” their 37th album since 1968, and hopscotched around through so many musical styles their opening set seemed too short to sample them all. No Thelonious Monk bebop (except oblique percussive detours in Terry Adams’s piano romps), no Sun Ra space flights, but lots of other fun. Their rockabilly stomps – “I Want You Bad,” That’s Neat, That’s Nice,” “Howard Johnson’s Got his Ho-Jo Working” with a powerhouse vocal by saxman Klem Klimek— and Chuck Berry’s highway hit “Back in the USA,” with hot solos by Adams and guitarist Scott Ligon, set up slower songs. The Everly’s “Let It Be Me” sparkled in breathtaking harmonies from Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough, who locked great grooves with drummer John Perrin.
NRBQ played better than they sounded; the PA somewhat muffled and weak. They earned big applause anyway, especially in their guests section where I sat; Johnny Rabb (his own all-star rockabilly crews, and the Neanderthals) on my left, David Schachne (the Rhythm Method, and French Letter) on my right and Paul (F. Lee Harvey Blotto) Rapp a row behind.
All musicians start as fans, and stay fans; all musicians are NRBQ fans, and nobody applauds as enthusiastically. I could hear their gasps around me as NRBQ crooned “Let It Be Me,” and Schachne remarked how Duke Levine’s guitar fills in Raitt’s “Just Like That” felt (Mark) Knopfler-y, just as I scribbled that in my notebook.
While NRBQ played from deep in their varied influences, Raitt played her own style, flavored with others’; so she’s the bigger star and they opened. Forays into reggae and Afro-pop expressed her own distinctly bluesy musical personality.
Like NRBQ, she mixed new songs from “Just Like That” (due next week) with favorites that made her an early 70s folk-blues star, then a subtle, solid interpreter of great songwriters’ best tunes ever since.
Noting Friday’s Palace show was her third gig in 2-1/2 years, she and her band sounded wonderfully strong, versatile and confidently smooth in 18 songs over 105 minutes onstage.
Three of her first four songs were new; the jaunty “Made Up Mind,” the funky “Waiting for You to Blow” and “bluesy “Blame It On Me” bookending the familiar “Longing In Their Hearts.”
She put the crowd in her pocket right away and got a good, un-cued singalong in John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” just five songs in.
Her all-aces band helped: drummer Ricky Fataar, bassist “Hutch” Hutchinson (whom she used to introduce as “from the Neville Brothers”), keyboardist Glen Patscha (whose Ollabelle bandmate Amy Helm Raitt hailed from the stage) and guitarist Duke Levine (on loan from Peter Wolf’s band).
Raitt proved again and again that she could have hypnotized, thrilled, awed and amazed all by herself, and not just with sizzling slide guitar runs. She sat at times to finger-pick, folk-style, but her voice is her best instrument. Raitt doesn’t pack the human-trumpet power of her blues-women heroines, but she sang Friday with all the punch any song needed. She’s as subtle a vocal pop-rock-blues-whatever song magician as we have now. And we’ve had her on our radios and stages so long it’s easy to take her for granted – until she shows up again, like Friday, to knock our socks off, again, and turn our hearts inside out.
A connoisseur of heartbreak, a cello made of tears in the sad ones, Raitt rued her losses at their full depth. The claustrophobic karma of “Back Around” early on and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” as her first encore, made the happy ones soar in sunny contrast. “Thing Called Love,” “Nick of Time” and “Love Sneaking Up On You” partied hearty. And she proved an adept story-teller, speaking through others’ souls. She crooned her late pal John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” better, as he’d likely admit, than he ever did.
Right after that, she sang the new “Living for the Ones,” mourning the recent losses of 14 friends, including Prine. But then she shook off her grief in “Love Sneaking Up on You.”
Despite the unfamiliarity of new tunes from “Just Like That,” the show played like a highlight film, from sheer performance quality, the sincerity of Raitt’s song intros and her canny choices of what to play and how.
Intro’ing the new “Blame It on Me,” she remarked that “where love doesn’t work out, that’s where I make my living,” then earned big applause with a scorching slide solo before yielding the spotlight to Patscha’s organ break. Then she shifted gears seamlessly from that moody blues into Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” – all sunny slide guitar scorch.
She settled into the band at times, like a chair, or drove it like a hot rod; the boss, the big sister.
Sometimes when Levine soloed – and he always had something to say – Raitt drifted over to stand alongside, and she turned to watch whenever anybody behind her hit an extra-cool riff.
At the end, she brought out NRBQ Terry Adams for rollicking piano in “Green Lights,” a 1978 ‘Q song she recorded in 1982. She expressed surprise that she’d still be playing it at 72, but loyally proclaimed “Bonnie and NRBQ, forever!” – a durable and often dazzling delight on Friday.
NRBQ fans will likely pilgrimage to the Hangar on the Hudson on June 4 for their full ride headline show.