Bonnie Raitt is such a spectacular singer and guitar player that it can be easy to forget what a consummate bandleader she is. From introducing her fellow players very early in the show, to inviting two members of the opening band onstage for a trumpet-and-clarinet cameo, to talking with the audience between songs like they’ve been friends forever, Raitt earns everyone’s love and attention simply by extending her respect in all directions. She just seems born to the role, something that was repeatedly evident throughout her two-hour performance Wednesday night at ACL Live.
It’s telling that four of the first five songs Raitt played were from her new album “Dig in Deep,” released in February. For an artist with such a deep and renowned back catalog, such a move might make some fans restless — but her new stuff is quite good, and in fact the show’s first hour may well have been even better than the back end more loaded with favorites. Trust in Bonnie.
Austin has long been one of Raitt’s favorite cities, as she made clear throughout the show. She acknowledged taking part in the landmark 40th-anniversary celebration for “Austin City Limits” in this building two years ago, and wondered aloud if more new buildings had gone up downtown since then. “Can you guys still afford to live here?”, she asked, lamenting that the same scenario is playing out in the Bay Area, where she lives. “I’m happy it’s popular,” she said of Austin, “but I hope it stays weird.”
Raitt also gave shout-outs to a handful of local musicians, including Sarah Brown, Johnny Nicholas and Jimmie Vaughan. “I don’t care what they say, Elvis Presley will never be as cool as Jimmie Vaughan,” she declared after adopting an Elvis-like vocal tic on a rousing cover of Los Lobos’ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.”
Not one to shy away from political matters, Raitt introduced 20th-century bluesman J.B. Lenoir’s “Round and Round” by praising the songwriter’s activism during the Vietnam War — a timely touch given the summit taking place this week at the LBJ Library. And she explained that her new song “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through” was motivated by frustrations with the present election cycle.
Sometimes the political intertwined with the personal. She spoke out for musicians’ rights to earn “a fair wage” in the digital age, acknowledging that she could be in the same boat but for the fates of timing. “I’m lucky I got a foot in the door before the business collapsed,” Raitt said.
Those thoughts came as she introduced John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which remains as heartstopping today as when she recorded it in 1974. There’s line in Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” where he suggests that hearing Doc Watson sing “Columbus Stockade Blues” is one of the great wonders of the world. Clark could change that line to “I have heard Bonnie Raitt sing ‘Angel From Montgomery,’” and everyone would understand.
The other moment of spectacular emotion came in the encore, when Raitt introduced her 1991 hit ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by noting, simply, “This song is just too beautiful not to sing.” She mentioned someone had reminded her recently that Prince also recorded the song, which was written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. And she added that she can’t sing it without thinking of the late Stephen Bruton, the Austin musician who was a fixture in her band for years.
Raitt’s present four-man crew is a huge part of her show, and she knows it. She’s played with drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson since the early ’80s, and she consistently leans heavily (sometimes literally) on guitarist George Marinelli and keyboardist Mike Finnigan, the latter of whom scorched the room with a vocal lead on B.B. King’s “Don’t Answer the Door.”
Fataar also took a turn at the keyboards when Raitt called an audible during the encore and played Paul Siebel’s “Louise,” a song she recorded on her 1977 album “Sweet Forgiveness.” And in reaching all the way back to her 1971 debut for Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” she invited up horn players Lech Wierzynski and Johnny Bones from the California Honeydrops, who kicked off the night with an easygoing 45-minute set of sunny, New Orleans-style soul grooves.
Those who missed out on tickets to the concert, which sold out quickly, have another shot this fall. Tickets go on sale Friday, April 29, for Raitt’s return engagement at ACL Live on Nov. 8, with the California Honedrops again in the opening slot.
1. Need You Tonight
2. Used to Rule the World
3. I Knew
5. Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes
6. Right Down the Line
7. Round and Round
8. I Feel the Same
9. Women Be Wise
10. Hear Me Lord
11. Something to Talk About
12. The Comin’ Round Is Going Through
13. Angel From Montgomery
14. Don’t Answer the Door
15. Gypsy in Me
16. Love Letter
17. What You’re Doin’ to Me
18. I Can’t Make You Love Me
20. Love Sneakin’ Up on You