It's not uncommon for the opening act to hype the crowd for the headliner, but Marc Cohn went above and beyond Monday night by name-dropping a list of great singers -- Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, etc. -- before coming to the conclusion that the greatest living singer is Bonnie Raitt.
If she was backstage at Heinz Hall hearing that her face may have turned as red as her hair. In short order, though, she came out for her first show here in almost a decade and just about lived up to that billing.
Ms. Raitt is indeed a great singer with just the right amount of natural grit in her voice to have hung in there with blues legends while she was still a teenager. She shined, whether it was on a blues grind like Bob Dylan's "Million Miles" (an inspired choice from her latest album "Slipstream") or a simmering ballad like Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day." She called an audible to put that on the set list, and it was a beauty, with spare backup and a bare-naked vocal.
Clearly, one of her talents is good taste in songwriters.
And, of course, playing guitar. Bonnie is first-rate slide player whose surging sound brings to mind Lowell George and David Lindley. She lit a fire under the gospel burner "Hear Me Lord" and funk-soul churner "No Gettin' Over You," an original with, as she said herself, a distinct Little Feat flair.
She slid those licks in and around the work of longtime guitar sidekick George Marinelli, part of her fine four-piece backing band. Keyboardist Mike Finnigan got the spotlight for a howling blues vocal on "I Got News for You."
Ms. Raitt made frequent mention of her late father, a renowned Broadway star, and sent a beautiful, emotional version of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" out to her mom, who instilled in her the love of music and call to activism. She lost both of them over the last decade.
Ms. Raitt is best known as a stylist, and two songs she's claimed for her own are "Something to Talk About" and John Hiatt's "Thing Called Love," which put a rock 'n' roll charge into the symphony's velvet palace.
In the encore, she eased through the middle-of-the-road pop of "Nick of Time," brought Mr. Cohn back out to duet on Van Morrison's soulful "Crazy Love," and she belted out Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise."
That song goes all the way back to her first album. That was 42 years and many career highlights ago. At 64, you can guess she sings it even better than she did then.
In his set, Mr. Cohn, a gruff-voiced bluesy folk singer, moved between piano and guitar wearing his influences on his sleeve, as he sang like Dylan on "Perfect Love," Ray Charles on "29 Ways," and the late great Band singer on the moving "Listening to Levon."
After a funny rap on the futility of being a Browns fan -- he's from Cleveland -- he honored Elvis, Al Green and his personal muse Muriel on an extended, falsetto-flashing version of his "calling card" song "Walking in Memphis." Mr. Cohn is for the fan who likes every note carefully played and sung.
Bonnie Raitt's set list
Used to Rule the World
Right Down the Line
Something to Talk About
Dimming of the Day
Hear Me Lord
No Gettin' Over You
Marriage Made in Hollywood
Not Cause I Wanted To
Angel From Montgomery
Thing Called Love
I Got News For You
I Feel So Damn Good (I'll Be Glad When I Get The Blues)
I Can't Make You Love Me
Women Be Wise
Nick of Time
Crazy Love (with Marc Cohn)
A Big Hunk O' Love
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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