Mann Oh Mann: Richard Thompson And Bonnie Raitt In Concert

Philadelphia’s Mann Center For The Performing Arts is a great outdoor concert venue that can be a bitch getting to and leaving from, depending on where you live and what mode of transport you opt to use. The Mann, built into a hilly section of enormous public parklands, is decently accessible for those who reside not too far from it and who visit using foot power or public transit. Not so for just about everyone else. That’s because just about everyone else drives. For them, the traffic jams they usually run into and the post-concert nightmare of trying to exit the parking areas at the same time as thousands of their fellow citizens . . . oy frigging vey, to say the least. In the early 1990s, an incredibly awful Mann traffic experience sent my now-wife Sandy’s and my blood pressures to Guinness World Records levels. And, amid the type of shouting matches in the car that would have made us stars on The Jerry Springer Show, nearly caused us to divorce one another, even though we weren’t even married yet! Shell-shocked, we stayed away from The Mann for eons after that memorable night. Until a week and a half ago, that is, when we learned about a pleasant method of Manning-it, and took in a terrific show.

In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.
In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.

The concert-in-question’s headliner was Bonnie Raitt. The opening act was Richard Thompson. Double bills as strong as this one are not everyday events. Sandy and I were there with our great pals Cindy and Gene. The two couples ended up sitting in different sections of The Mann, but arrived at the scene in the same vehicle. Turns out that SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit authority, runs a dedicated bus on Mann concert nights. Sandy and I never knew about this till Cindy clued us in. And thus we took a train from our home in the burbs to central Philadelphia and hopped on the special bus soon after arriving in the city. Several stops later, Cindy and Gene, Philadelphia residents, hopped aboard too. Mannward we headed. Calmly.

Raitt and Thompson are pushing 70 and, judging from the crowd at The Mann, don’t exactly have a huge fan base among Generations X and Y. Despite this, they can sell plenty of tickets. Between them they stimulated about 6,000 bodies to lay down dough for seats the other night. As opening acts are prone to do, Richard played first. I’ll come back to him soon, but have decided to say a few things now about Bonnie Raitt.

IMG_1540For two hours Bonnie was on stage with her backing band of four (drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and electric guitarist/mandolin player), a well-oiled and flexible machine. She was wonderful. Bonnie’s music goes down easy and brings together currents of the blues, singer-songwriter, rock, gospel and folk music streams. She is famed for her electric slide guitar work, but to me, to tell you the truth, she seemed not a guitar slinger. And she didn’t emphasize her songwriting efforts. Though she has written or co-written a decent number of songs during  her 48-or-so-year career, she hauled out only two of them (What You’re Doin’ To Me and The Comin’ Round Is Going Through, both from her new album Dig In Deep ) for her 20-song set. What she had going for her, more than anything, was her voice. Warm and natural, Bonnie’s pipes drew the crowd into each song’s lyrics. And, without strain, she belted out whatever needed to be belted out whenever the occasion arose. I held on tight when I knew that high and powerful notes were a-comin’, expecting to be swept up into the clouds. And that’s what happened. Her voice may have burnished oh so slightly since her younger days, but basically Bonnie sings as well as she ever has. Which is saying something.

Take John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, for instance. This song about a beat-down elderly woman began with only Bonnie and her acoustic guitar. She sang majestically, probing Prine’s chilling narrative. Halfway through the tune the rest of the group entered. Ricky Fataar’s cymbal and high-hat work was simple and quiet and appropriate. George Marinelli’s mandolin solo was sweet. Goosebumps, I think, swelled throughout The Mann, whose audience jumped into a standing O, the evening’s second, at Angel’s end. You will find a recent live version of the song by clicking here.

I have a feeling that most people have heard of Bonnie Raitt, and that far, far fewer know about Richard Thompson, though his abilities are extraordinary and his career long (he was a founder of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967). Me, I believe that RT is one of the greatest musical talents among us. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a guitar player. In a fair and just world he’d be a megastar. Poor guy, he has to settle for truckloads of praise instead of ocean liner loads, and for making a really nice living instead of raking in countless millions. Life’s tough.

This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left.
This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left. Mea culpa.

Well, if I ran The Mann, BR would have opened for RT, not the other way around. Forty-five minutes of him and his band (Taras Prodaniuk on electric bass, Michael Jerome on drums) weren’t enough. Sandy and I have seen Richard in performance a number of times, and he hasn’t lost a beat. His steely, deep voice cut like a knife at The Mann. His electric guitar playing snarled, jabbed and tunneled into realms so dense he left me in disbelief. During some RT solos, Sandy said she thought I was going to give myself whiplash, what with my head pivoting and swiveling so much. Such as on his piercing song If Love Whispers Your Name, during which he went atomic on his guitar (click here for a version of this tune from three years ago, and note that RT’s long, amazing guitar solo begins at about the 3:20 mark).

Back to Bonnie. She is more than a Richard Thompson supporter. She said to the audience that he is one of her heroes, and brought him onstage in the middle of her set for two songs. In case you were wondering, the guy has a delicate side that adroitly examines life’s heartbreaks and mysteries in some of his quieter compositions, such as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Dimming Of The Day. To be sure, Dimming Of The Day is a remarkable creation. When in the correct hands it will stun you. Which is what occurred when Bonnie and Richard, each working an acoustic guitar, intertwined their voices in a heavenly manner and, totally deservedly, received the evening’s first standing O when Dimming’s final notes slipped into the air. A beautiful version, from some years ago, of Bonnie and Richard performing Dimming Of The Day exists on YouTube. By clicking here you will see what I mean.

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Raul Malo Alone On Stage

New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.
New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.

I don’t much enjoy the artsy and touristy central section of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Haven’t been there in several years. The crowds, the traffic, the bad news parking situation. Who needs it?  But I have been to New Hope’s fringes a bunch of times last year and this year, as I mentioned in my article about Kim Richey. The New Hope Winery lies a couple of miles south of the “I’m not going there” zone, and that’s where my wife Sandy and I have become semi-regulars.

Pre-showtime.
Before showtime.

Behind the winery’s gift shop is a roomy building dubbed the Event Center. On its small stage the winery presents a nice variety of musicians year-round. On Thursday evening, June 18, Raul Malo, lead singer of The Mavericks, stepped into the spotlight. Malo is on tour with The Mavericks but took a short solo side trip to New Hope, where he had played the previous evening too. The next day he’d be back rocking and rolling with his band in Rochester, New York. But in New Hope the audience got a full dose of his contemplative side. He picked up his acoustic guitar at 8:10 PM, and for the next 100 minutes had the audience, me and Sandy included, in the palms of his hands.

Raul Malo has been a pretty big name for the last 25 years. His voice is the reason why. It’s a rich tenor, wide-ranging, and moves nimbly in upper registers where others may fear to tread. In New Hope Malo brought the volume and assured passion at appropriate times, but largely kept things reined in. The point is that he has wonderful vocal taste and great control. His singing is a thing of beauty.

Raul Malo in action.
Raul Malo in action.

I’d seen Raul on television, heard him perform on the radio, but New Hope was my first live visitation with him. He sang 17 songs, ten of which he wrote or co-wrote. I was smitten from the git go, but in a million years wouldn’t have guessed his choice for show opener. Picking his guitar slowly and easily, he quietly sang not one of his own numbers, but Summer Wind, the tune made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1966. Raul did the song proud.

Summer Wind is a lament about lost love. All 16 songs that followed, self-penned and not, also were about love in one way or another. Love in bloom, love desired, love remembered. Raul covered all bases. I never thought I’d hear a version of Harvest Moon, a gorgeous and pure love song, to rival that of its author, Neil Young. But Raul came close, singing with restrained emotion, hitting the high notes with clarity. He did excellent work on his own Born To Be Blue, and Lucky One, the Roy Orbison-like operatic qualities of his voice emerging on those two numbers.

The most stunning moments arrived late in the show. (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven gave me goose bumps. Raul wrote this song for The Mavericks’ In Time album. From my seat 15 feet from stage left, I took it as a song about a breakup, a relationship not meant to succeed on planet Earth but destined to flower in a better place, maybe one of the mind. Raul sang slowly, mournfully. He drew out the song for many minutes. When introducing the tune, he had asked the audience to join in towards the end. They did. And that’s where the goose bumps came in. Though surely some males were part of the choir, somehow I heard only female tones. As Raul fingered the refrain’s chords over and over, angelic sweet voices rose throughout the room. Call me when you get to heaven . . . Call me when you get to heaven. It was just so beautiful.

Raul Malo from a different angle.
Raul Malo from a different angle.

During that number I realized who Raul reminds me of. José Feliciano. Like Feliciano, Malo possesses both fervor and quiet strength, and the ability to be in-the-moment. None of this was lost on the near-capacity crowd seated at the room’s red tablecloth-covered cocktail tables. They went wild with claps and yells between songs. But when Raul sang, they were seriously silent and attentive. Raul loved them back. Happy, laughing and joking around during the interludes, he especially made the night for a lady celebrating her birthday at the show. She was a super fan, it turns out, saying that this was the 80th time she had seen Raul perform. To honor her, he sang Can’t Help Falling In Love, the Elvis hit from 1961. And then he threw out two of his best and funniest lines of the evening. I hadn’t planned to use any profanity in this blog, though I curse aplenty in my non-blogging life. But I’m going to repeat verbatim what Raul Malo said after the final guitar strums of Can’t Help faded away. “That ought to buy me some karma points. Now I can go back to being a shit.”

A worthy side note about choice. The night that Sandy and I were in Malo pastures, two other splendid musical events were available not far away in the Philadelphia suburbs: The Richard Thompson Electric Trio and Graham Parker And The Rumour, great bands that must have brought down their respective houses. For discriminating music fans of any age, June 18 presented one of those uncommon convergences when deciding where to pay one’s money was a tough call.