The first time I saw Bonnie Raitt she was sitting in Skip and Lorenza James’ dining room in West Philly. She was sitting on the side next to Skip’s upright piano and she was strumming the blues on an old guitar. Softly, all alone. Delta bluesman James had been buried that afternoon.
On Thursday night at Temple University Music Festival in Ambler, Bonnie Raitt was aback in town; but she wasn’t alone and she was still playing the blues she learned from bluesmen like James, the late Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace.
She played them softly, sometimes audaciously. And on this visit to Philadelphia (in which she has performed many times in the last three years), she had nearly 4,000 people moving to every beat and earthy nuance of her music.
“She prefers an intimate atmosphere,” according to her standby bass player, Freebo (formerly with Philadelphia’s Edison Electric Band), “but you can’t just play small houses and have them lined up around the block. You have to reach the large houses.”
Bonnie Raitt has no trouble reaching large houses. She’s as intimate with thousands as she is with hundreds. Talking, smiling and cracking jokes between numbers, she holds you engagingly.
Not once during the hour or so performance did Ms. Raitt loose her composure. And she
did have problems. Her 20-year-old electric Gibson needed tuning between every number. She laughed about it, and perched on a black stool, said she needed “a midget to do my tuning.” The lighting was burning her out, too. “My freckles are melting.”
The biggest problem, and one the audience probably wasn’t aware of, was that Ms. Raitt had a new group Thursday night and it was giving its first performance. And with only three days rehearsal, it showed in the opening numbers particularly.
But on the whole the group came across well. The two new members, after several years with Van Morrison, were John Platania on guitar and Jeff Labes on piano. They each had their moments on stage and played them skillfully.
Freebo on bass (and harmony and kazoo) and Dennis Whitted on drums have been with Bonnie for sometime, and that threesome was as tight, as driving, as it always was.
But the real star was Ms. Raitt and blues isn’t the only thing she’s a star in.
Time has only refined Ms. Raitt’s ability to go up and down emotions like scales on a piano. She can slide in and out of a ballad and make it as pure as a solo guitar. A gut-grabbing plea for love can become as painful in its remembrance as it was the first time you felt it. A rhythm and blues number rocks the chairs, one and all.
Bonnie Raitt always comes off as a woman, a little bit wistful, a little bit brazen and all the time soulful.
She’s also a consummate musician.