No one, particularly from her generation, sings the words “rock me, baby” quite like Bonnie Raitt. It’s more like private pillow talk rather than a song lyric.
When she uttered that line, at least a handful of times, at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, she exuded the same sly sensuality that has been key to her broad appeal since she first emerged in the early 1970s.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Raitt, who lived in the area in the late ’60s when she attended Radcliffe College, and old times were clearly on her mind.
“I got so much history in this place [that] I’m grinning from ear to ear,” she told the sold-out crowd by way of introduction before easing into a two-hour set that was loose and limber enough to survey most of her long career.
Raitt turned 64 recently, a fact that she noted as a point of pride, and she’s starting to wear her age as a badge of hard-won honor. The older Raitt who sang Chris Smither’s “Love Me Like a Man,” raunchy and smoldering at the same time, brought more pathos to that acoustic blues number than she could have mustered as a young woman.
The same could be said of her performance of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” A signature ballad for her, by now it could be a rote staple in her repertoire; instead, she imbued it with an elegiac sense of loss, like a torch singer after last call at the bar. She began “Angel From Montgomery,” dedicated to her mother’s memory, as an a cappella hymn that sent shivers down the spine.
Moving seamlessly between tearjerkers and stomping rockers, she was highly attuned to her band members, each of whom — guitarist George Marinelli, bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar, and organ player Mike Finnigan — added vibrant color and contrasts to Raitt’s work on slide guitar.
She also got by with a little help from her friends, including Marc Cohn, who sang Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” as a duet with Raitt and also opened the show with a set of stately piano pop. Raitt also brought out Bonnie Hayes, the head of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music, and they took turns singing “Have a Heart,” which Hayes wrote.
They all took a final bow with Raitt, who glowed like she had just spent the past two hours doing exactly what she wanted. By her own admission, she had.
“We love our jobs, and we’re not suited for anything else,” she had joked earlier in the evening.