The first generations of rock and rollers didn’t have long-term career plans; maybe they hoped they’d die before they got old, or maybe they figured on some day getting haircuts and getting real jobs. Now in their 70s and 80s, many of these pioneers carry on performing well past they have any business doing so. Some do it for the enduring adulation, some because they never learned any other skills, some because they can’t afford not to.

Bonnie Raitt, on the other hand, may only now be getting her due. Sure, there were the splashes of pop stardom thirty-some years ago, and yes, there have been Grammys, but these accolades have only solidified her reputation as an AOR balladeer. Her sentimental hits weren’t enough to justify a packed, rambunctious Tuesday night crowd at The Riverside Theater.

Last year, the title track of Raitt’s latest album, “Just Like That,” beat out the likes of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé for the Song of the Year Grammy. It may not have added up to record-breaking stadium tours, but the acoustic tear-jerker showcased Raitt’s often overlooked lyrical prowess. She wrote the song in the wake of beloved country/folk troubadour John Prine’s passing, and true to form, Tuesday night’s show was full of tributes to musical heroes past and present.

That list included a local legend as well. Following her opening trio of songs, Raitt told the crowd about her day exploring Milwaukee with singer/songwriter/WMSE DJ Paul Cebar and his family. “This is a really cool town,” said Raitt. “Paul is such an inspiration to me, and he’s such a great artist himself, but man, that radio show, I listen to it every week, it’s killer. The Milwaukee School of Engineering is the hippest tech school in the country, clearly.”

Other tributes included John Hiatt, who wrote “No Business,” a rocking deep cut off Raitt’s biggest seller, Luck Of The Draw; Bob Dylan, via a gnarly, grooving rendition of his “Million Miles” (plus a shout-out to Lucinda Williams, as both she and Dylan are playing Milwaukee this week); and Prine himself, on what would’ve been his 77th birthday. “Just Like That” did bring the whole crowd to its feet, but even more stirring was Raitt’s version of Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which she plays every night. “There’s nobody better,” she declared. “There’ll never be anyone like him.” And of the countless people who’ve covered this song, no one has ever sung it better than Bonnie.

The song selections didn’t hold many surprises, although “Waitin’ For You To Blow” made a return after being absent for most of the year; along with “Livin’ For The Ones,” it was a high-energy highlight of the show. And there was one tune you won’t see on any printed setlist: the Hamm’s beer jingle. “From the land of sky blue wa-aters,” Raitt sang to the crowd’s delight following “Nick Of Time,” recalling the commercial from her childhood. “Milwaukee, where is that? I was out in Los Angeles and it seemed so exotic to me. Bears paddling canoes?”

Her banter was a big part of the night’s fun, but what will probably stick out most in people’s memories were the moments when Raitt’s voice itself held everyone captive. Her late-’80s career resurgence may have owed a lot to the production sheen of Don Was, but there was no trace of it at this show. Hardcore fans have plenty of legitimate gripes, whether regarding the virtually ignored first two decades of her career or her perennially underrated guitar prowess. Her reputation as an interpreter of a loosely defined Americana songbook, however, remains intact, and her encore rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was stunning. Like any legendary soul or jazz crooner you’d care to name, Raitt brought decades of life on the road to bear on this song, and the rest of the world fell away.

The definition of an artist “in their prime” also fell away, because as a singer, Raitt has never sounded better. Maybe her guitar playing was flashier in the past, but as performers, she and her band lacked for nothing at this show. The current tour is coming to an end this weekend, and all indications are it won’t be the last for the 73-year-old icon. “Then it’s back home, and grocery shopping, and cleaning my house a lot,” she lamented, “and wishing I was back out on the road!”

Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.

About The Author

Avatar photo

Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.