Concert review: James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt soothe souls in Duluth

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James Taylor, live and in Technicolor! Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

In recent years, both Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor have swung through Atlanta with some regularity – she most recently in October and he in May 2015.

But for these two musical storytellers to share a bill is a special occurrence, and even though their Tuesday night appearance at Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth marked only the fourth date of their combo tour, their decades-long friendship ensured an effortless unveiling.

At promptly 7:30 p.m., Taylor, in a typical professorial outfit of slacks, blazer and newsboy cap, popped out to introduce Raitt, whom he called “deeply soulful,” before ceding the spotlight to the ever-feisty redhead and her taut quartet.

Bonnie Raitt rocked and provoked thoughtfulness during her set. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

For about an hour, Raitt wound her slide guitar around nearly a dozen songs, including a slithering take on INXS’ “Need You Tonight” and Chris Smither’s growling roots-rocker “Love Me Like a Man.”

Slender in black, pink and teal, Raitt, that swatch of pale hair her eternal identifier, brought blues (her longtime bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson served as her only accompaniment on the Smither’s song), reggae-pop (“Have a Heart”) and infectious sass (“Something to Talk About”) to her set.

While Raitt always seems to be waiting to reveal a knowing smirk, she’s also a reliably thoughtful and introspective performer.

Early in her set, she dedicated Taylor’s “Rainy Day Man” to Atlanta singer-guitarist Caroline Aiken, who was in the audience, and prefaced “Nick of Time” by stating, “This is for all of those we had to say goodbye to too early.”

After singing and playing keyboards on that rumination on aging, Raitt, 67, was visibly moved as she noted, “I was thinking about my friend Gregg Allman on that one. Too many, too soon,” she said.

She followed that with a persuasive commentary about the freedoms that American women enjoy – and sometimes take for granted – before releasing her warm, husky voice on the wistful “Angel from Montgomery,” which earned a deserved ovation.

Raitt, like Taylor, clearly adores her band, and she called them out several times throughout her set (along with Hutchinson, she was joined by long-timer George Marinelli on guitar, Mike Finnigan on keys and Ricky Fataar on drums).

For her final song, she added a band member – Taylor – who appeared to have a blast rolling through Raitt’s hit version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.”

That wasn’t the last fans would see of the tour mates – stick around for the encore to witness more Raitt/Taylor magic – but it was an endearing transition into Taylor’s own classics-filled set about 20 minutes later.

James Taylor’s storytelling prowess was on display. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

Taylor’s nearly two-hour show was a lesson is masterful storytelling – both in conversation and lyrics – and enduring songs.

Yes, maybe some of those ballads are a little TOO soothing when presented in a batch, but when you’re the guy who has written “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” and “Fire and Rain,” you pretty much have musical carte blanche for life.

Taylor’s clean stage made ample use of a video screen that glowed with scenic backdrops, close-ups of the musicians on stage and, during “Sunny Skies,” his adorable pug, Ting.

Those who have shared concert time with Taylor know that he’s as famous for his dry wit as he is his subtly terrific guitar work. (If you missed his 2015 interview with Howard Stern, it is well worth your time.)

“It means a lot to me, that last one,” he said after “October Road,” the title track to his 2002 album. “This next one means nothing to me.”

He was kidding, of course, as he and his ace band dove into “Steamroller,” complete with musical breakdowns by Walt Fowler on trumpet and Larry Goldings on organ. Taylor, 69, duck-walked across the stage to catch guitarist Michael Landau uncork a stinging solo, then goofily improvised lyrics and pulled a few bluesman faces to end the song.

Throughout the set, Taylor’s voice was creamy and emotive, pausing in the right spots to allow saxophonist Lou Marini to present a sleek solo in “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” and following the percussive thrust of Luis Conte on “Mexico.”

He also told the origin story about “Something in the Way She Moves” from his Apple Records debut – a particularly noteworthy sidebar considering several members of Paul McCartney’s band were in the audience (Macca plays the venue on Thursday).

“I played this for Paul McCartney and George Harrison in 1968 and the world changed for me that day,” Taylor said. “It was like walking through a door and the rest of my life was on the other side of it.”

The lullaby “Sweet Baby James” (a lone concertgoer with a cigarette lighter flicked it overhead during the ballad) and the emotional see-saw that is “Fire and Rain” – with some delicate drum rolls added for effect – maintained the mellow mood, but Taylor prepared a string of uptempo singalongs to ensure the audience left with smiling faces.

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