‘Guilty!” a lone voice cries out from the back of London Palladium, where blues legend Bonnie Raitt has just introduced a song for those who have experienced heartbreak. The voice speaks for everyone in the venue, and the song is I Can’t Make You Love Me – a ballad which Raitt transformed into the most universally shattering song about a breakup this side of Roy Orbison.
It’s one of many songs tonight where Raitt’s laidback-but-rip-your-guts-out take on classic themes of love and endurance is in full bloom. In front of a star-studded audience of peers including Joan Armatrading, Raitt runs through hits (Nick of Time, Something To Talk About, Love Sneakin’ Up On You) and covers (Angel From Montgomery, BB King’s Never Make Your Move Too Soon, INXS’s Need You Tonight) that underscore her fluent dexterity and the connective tissue of roots music. Each song is a homage to those who have come, or sadly gone, before her, with numbers dedicated to late friends and collaborators including Zimbabwean musician Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi and John Prine.
For her own part, Raitt, 73, has had an extraordinary trajectory. A California-born musician with west coast cool and a passion for the Delta blues; a bedroom-taught slide guitarist and one of few female players in a lineage of luminaries from Robert Johnson to Lowell George; an early voice in the anti-war movement and continued champion for social justice; the unexpected winner of the 2023 Grammy for song of the year over modern titans such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
Not even her hair, glowing fireball-red under the house spotlight, has lost its intensity, and her natural charisma and graceful determination are as captivating as ever. Her voice, rich and smoky from years of experience, carries stripped-back numbers like Back Around and Just Like That. Faultless guitar playing shines on beer-soaked rock tracks No Business and Livin’ for the Ones, and she steps further towards the audience to perform these with a confident smile, concluding by slamming the body of her signature Stratocaster into her hip.
This music has deepened with age – it now feels as timeless and worn-in as a horse’s saddle, and it takes everyone along for the ride (including a woman who keeps getting a slap on the wrist for jumping out of her seat to whoop and clap like it was a Baptist service). Raitt’s career has been a road less travelled, and yet her performance style makes that journey seem effortless.
• At Bournemouth Pavilion, 6 June, and touring.