Digging a Trench: Bonnie Raitt & James Taylor at the Huntington Center

Toledo is one of those cities I never go to unless I have a reason. I played hockey here once.

I’m late, fifteen to twenty minutes late, and it’s cold out and I run in. I can hear the crowd and I go to the nearest entrance. I hear Bonnie’s band finish a song and her yell, “somethingsometing Ohio!”

I sweep black curtains out of my way and I’m to the left of the stage and there she is. I can’t believe how red her hair is.

The usher directs me to my seat, so after another walk around the arena I find my seat and they’ve finished another song.

“Digging a trench back there, boys,” Bonnie says to her band. She talks a lot, real friendly like, like a grandmother who’s trying to get to know her daughter’s fiance. The guy next to me, long-haired hippie dude, asks his wife what “digging a trench” means.

I finally get to my seat, clear across the arena from the stage. The place is way bigger than I thought it would be. The Toledo Walleye play her. I believe they’re a minor league hockey team. From my seat, the musicians are barely visible. There’s large screens set up at either side of the stage giving us nosebleeders a closer look at the action. The view through my camera is worse. Like a Monet painting. All washed out from the lights.

When I finally get settled, she busts out an acoustic and talks about Skip James, whom she had the pleasure of knowing at some point. She tells us to keep the blues alive, talks about some environmental program they’re promoting out in the vestibule.

She slays on guitar. I knew she was good but holy fuck. Not much more can be said. The notes are buttercream. Her voice is raspy — I’d rather be the devil than be that woman’s man…

Her band comes back out. She dedicates a song to her biggest fan from Grand Rapids, someone named Mario, and immediately goes in to Something to Talk About which is one of those songs that’s so famous and so karoake’d to death you forget it was originally by her.

They do some from her breakthrough album Nick of Time. Have a Heart. She dedicates Nick of Time to anyone who’s worried about turning 40, though she mentions, “I doubt many people in this room are worried about that…” to an eruption of laughter and cheers.

With the lights off, everyone looks old. Bunch of ex-hippies and friendly boomers. These are the types of people who donate to the charities at the Kroger and McDonald’s and are cool about it if your kid accidentally runs their bike into their new car. Nice earthy Midwestern white liberals without any of the pervasive white guilt that seems to define the white liberals on the coasts.

Arthur McCoy, who I believe is a singer with James Taylor’s band, comes out and does a song with Bonnie. He’s got a silky smooth voice himself.

Bonnie sounds amazing. To say she sounds just like the record would be accurate but does her a disservice. It’s more like the records sound like her. I often talk about how music needs to be seen live and in the moment to be truly appreciated, and Bonnie is from that same era. She’d been playing for decades before she finally broke through. She’s a pure morning spirit. The background behind her is a watercolor sky. She’s turning 70 but her voice sounds 30.

“We’re gonna accomodate the woman who yelled out ‘Angel from Montgomery’,” Bonnie says after the song with Arthur McCoy, and I shit my pants because that’s the one song I wanted to hear her perform. Anything else is a plus but AfM is my fave. “We don’t usually do two ballads one right after the other but we’ll make an exception.”

She says a few words before the song, dedicates it to “women who aren’t as free as we are.” She starts and I get choked up. I don’t cry at concerts or movies or anything. I film the first verse and take it all in. It’s a perfect song, a perfect moment.

After that, she goes right into I Can’t Make You Love Me, dedicating it to anyone with a broken heart, seated at center and bathed in blue light just like at the Grammys that one time.

She closes with John Hiatt’s Thing Called Love. James Taylor comes out and plays guitar and mumbles the second verse.

There are bows, and she’s gone. Good vibes all the way.

I walk around, stretch my legs. With the lights up, the crowd is not nearly as old as I thought, though no one looks younger than me. I do some laps around the arena, get a Sprite and hot dog.

When I take my seat there’s an intro vid playing on the large screen setup that’s been erected behind the band. James Taylor talking about how he doesn’t present a facade, he presents himself. A bunch of introductions from over the years — JAMES TAYLOR! JAMES TAYLOR! JIMMY TAYLOR!

He appears, wearing a newsie cap like he’s been wearing since the 1990s. He opens with Going To Carolina, then Country Road. He sings a little slower than he used to, his voice taking a few microseconds longer to get to the right pitches. He still sounds like himself otherwise.

He talks a lot, too. He takes sips from a metal water bottle that clinks against the mic stand. Someone down front asks him what he’s drinking.

“I don’t know,” he says. He dumps a bit of the water bottle’s contents out on the stage. “It’s a clear liquid, tasteless…”

He tells us a story about his dad, who used to say “Hooray hooray the first of May, outdoor fucking starts today” every year on the first of May.

“Odorless colorless clear room temperature liquid,” he says again, sipping.

He talks about electric guitars and “the gas and steam guitars that came before them.” He introduces his band members one by one, shaking their hands as he goes.

I get up and walk back over to the entrance that I originally went in. I watch James do Steamroller and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. It’s snowing out and I have an hour drive. I want to get going. I came for Bonnie. I know she’ll come back out later to finish the show but this’ll have to do. It’s late.

James talks about Carole King and Brill Street and Tin Pan Alley. He’s doing Up on the Roof when I walk out.

The drive home is snowy and I’m sick of winter.

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