Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal joined forces at Bank of America Pavilion last Saturday for one of the best shows of the season. Although they’ve been friends for something approaching nearly 40 years, this is their first tour together. Raitt got her start playing in coffee houses and bars around Boston, and still ranks as the best thing to ever come out of the old Jack’s in Cambridge. Mahal came of age in the Springfield area, and his classmates at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst back in the day he was an animal husbandry major knew him as Henry Fredericks.
If a Bonnie Raitt/Taj Mahal duet on Otis Redding’s classic “Tramp” didn’t get your blood moving, even on a sultry night like Saturday at the sold-out Bank of America Pavilion, you probably don’t like music, or movement, or life itself.
But that gritty reworking of the old soul hit Redding sang with Carla Thomas was one of many highlights at Saturday’s Bon Taj Roulet tour. Both artists played separate sets of 45- minute sets or so, and then combined – with a combined band that had 12 musicians on stage – before joining together for a 35-minute jam backed by a 12-piece band at night’s end. The tour’s name, of course, is a variation on the classic phrase “les bon temps roulet,” or “let the good times roll,” and the night was surely full of funky blues and good-timey charm.
Beyond their roots in the Boston music scene, Raitt, 59, and Mahal, 67, both mastered classic blues forms and then used them as a basis to produce their own rootsy-but-contemporary music.
Although they’ve been friends for something approaching nearly 40 years, this is their first tour together. Raitt got her start playing in coffee houses and bars around Boston, and she still ranks as the best thing to ever come out of the old Jack’s in Cambridge. Mahal came of age in the Springfield area, and his classmates at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst back in the day he was an animal husbandry major knew him as Henry Fredericks.
Both Raitt and Mahal had seminal gigs at the legendary old Club 47 in the late 1960s, but this tour is hardly about nostalgia.
Their version of “Tramp” on Saturday was probably the best example of the easy and natural way these two stars turned Saturday the night into a celebration of their music and their friendship.
There was Taj, shimmying and mugging as he sang the Redding lines, and here was Raitt, sneaking up and scratching his back playfully at just the right moment. When you add the array of talent from Raitt’s quintet and Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band, including the Texicali Horns creating the funky R&B behind them, it was truly a moment to cherish.
But there were plenty of other memorable moments. The boogie-woogie piano romp on “I Feel So Good” was electric, as was Mahal’s old chestnut, “She Took the Katy,” with more good-natured interplay. The calypso shades of “Outside Man” – from a 1973 Raitt album Mahal helped produce – led naturally into a cover of Toots and the Maytals’ “A Love So Strong,” a tune with a gentle reggae beat.
The night’s big finale was a rowdy blues-rocker with Mahal singing lead and Raitt simply providing her sterling slide guitar lines as he proclaimed his passion for his “TV Mama” because of the her “big wide screen.”
Raitt’s 13-song set show cased her quintet’s numerous talents, especially guitarist George Marineilli and new key boardist Ricky Peterson.
From the chugging swamp-rock of her opening tune, “Sure Do Need You,” to the guitar duel that erupted between Raitt’s slide and Marinelli’s lead guitar during “Thing Called Love,” the musical heat was palpable. Raitt gave “One Belief Away” an easy-throbbing world beat, with Peterson’s electric piano lines the focal point. Her classic recorded version of “Good Man, Good Woman,” was done as a duet with Delbert McClinton, but Saturday Peterson filled in for him with a surprisingly strong tenor/baritone voice that was so good it was startling.
Mahal made a guest appearance during Raitt’s set, playing acoustic finger-picked guitar on “Lay Back and Holler,” while she did her thing on a purple National Steel guitar, for the easy country stroll. Later the two stars traded verses, with Mahal on piano, for a comically rollicking “Built for Comfort.”
Raitt’s almost a cappella take on the first few verses of “Angel from Montgomery” has to rank as one of summer’s most arresting musical moments, her vocal was stunning in its purity and heartrending in its poignancy.
The hardest rocking song of Raitt’s set was “Working on a Love Thing,” with the horns upping the funk quotient. “Something to Talk About” also worked that subtle funk territory with elan. Raitt did “Trinkets,” from her last album, “Souls Alike,” as a kind of talking blues vibe, full of presumably autobiographical details, but musically it stalled in a kind of bland, soft-rock groove that was the night’s only flat spot.
But that momentum was soon recovered with a romping, stomping charge through “I Believe I’m in Love with You.” And Raitt closed with a spine- tingling reading of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” as Peterson added an evocative piano coda.
Mahal’s 45-minute set show cased his versatility, as you might expect of someone who’s followed his muse from blues to Caribbean and West Indian music, Hawaiian hula music, reggae, calypso, and African music from Mali. Looking regal in his yellow tropical shirt and white straw fedora, Mahal ranged from premier swinging blues shouts to stark country-blues without missing a beat. Mahal’s set ended with an instrumental, as he led his septet on his hollow-bodied electric guitar, through the sizzling new R&B tune “711.” The Texicali Horns acted as part of the rhythm section as Mahal’s guitar and the organist traded licks.
The Patriot Ledger