IT'S only been in the last few years, since her landmark ``Nick of Time'' album, that Bonnie Raitt has hit the big time, and she seemed visibly awed in her first appearance at New York's Radio City Music Hall. ``We'll just pretend we're in a club,'' she assured the audience, and the results were just fine. She delivered a 105-minute set, consisting largely of cuts from her last three albums, and in her singing and stinging slide-guitar playing, she demonstrated that she is at the peak of her powers.
Raitt's current national tour, in which she's playing mostly in summer amphitheaters, offered ample proof that her success is no accident. If her latest album sometimes suffers from a formulaic level of songwriting, the formula seems to be mightily appealing to a middle-aged audience who shares her anxieties about getting older and dealing with modern relationships. Her music now edges away from the blues and toward middle-of-the-road adult pop, but her slightly raspy voice gives even the ballads an edge.
In concert, the material from her latest album gained from a more muscular sound and a looser approach than the sometimes overly slick Don Was-produced recording. In particular, her live versions of Richard Thompson's ``Dimming of the Day,'' John Prine's ``Angel of Montgomery,'' and her own ``Feeling of Falling'' was intense.
Although much of the show was devoted to ballads, she was careful to include some straight-out rockers. A highlight was the encore, John Hiatt's ``Thing Called Love,'' with special guest (and opening act) Bruce Hornsby rocking out on that most unlikely of instruments, the accordion.
But the real highlight of the show was the second encore, when she brought out her father, the veteran Broadway singer John Raitt. Father and daughter, gazing rapturously at each other, sang a beautiful rendition of ``They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful'' from ``Annie Get Your Gun.''
The elder Raitt then brought down the house with a rousing version of ``Oklahoma,'' which brought the audience to its feet. His daughter stood back, shaking her head and smiling, realizing that she had been upstaged but looking very happy about it.
The Grateful Dead
Writing about a band like the Grateful Dead is an exercise in futility: No matter what anybody says, every concert they perform is entirely sold out, filled with their ecstatic fans the ``Deadheads,'' who in some weird way seem to be getting younger as the band members keep getting older.
Deadheads have a language and an agenda all their own, and a mere novice (say, someone like a music critic who might see the group perform only once or twice a year) is left in the dust. There have been Grateful Dead shows I've loved and shows at which I've been bored silly. The band's recent performance at Giants Stadium, part of their huge summer stadium tour, was more of an example of the latter, but it did have its moments.
These came when the band's loose style of psychedelically tinged rock hit a groove that had the fans dancing in the aisles (the security force soon gave up the struggle) or bobbing up and down in their seats. Jerry Garcia, hunched over his guitar, had his usual periodic moments of brilliance.
But too often the songs meandered aimlessly without ever coalescing, and although one doesn't expect conciseness from this band, the performance was a bit amorphous even for the Dead. The group also stayed away from the better-known songs, performing a set that was composed largely of obscure numbers. And yes, the extended percussion segment was still in place.
Still, the Deadheads in the crowd seemed to feel that it was one of the band's better nights, many of them complaining instead about the previous night's performance (these fans don't attend just one show).
They didn't even seem to mind the attenuated hour-long break between sets. (``Sorry about that, technical difficulties,'' was all singer Bob Weir said by way of explanation.) When I left the stadium at 12:30 a.m., with the end of the show nowhere in sight, fans were still standing around in a blissful daze.