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Bonnie Raitt: Blues From a Shack

on November 17, 1971 No comments
by George Kimball

Warner Bros. WS 1953

Bonnie Raitt 1971 © Hal Moore

Bonnie Raitt’s reputation has by now spread far and wide, well beyond the bounds of Cambridge, and her stature among other musicians — particularly other blues musicians — is perhaps unmatched among female performers on the scene today. Everyone from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Buddy Guy and Mississippi Fred McDowell to Rosalie Sorrels and Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders has made the observation that there is probably not another woman alive who plays slide guitar to well, and as a singer it is not so much the quality of her voice but the honesty and authenticity of her delivery that make her so effective.

With a six-figure, three-record contract from Warner Brothers, Bonnie flew to Minnesota late this summer, where this album was recorded in a matter of a few weeks. Many people conversant with the music business were appalled and horrified upon learning that she intended to cut the record entirely on four-track. It did seem somewhat astonishing, particularly in light of the resources behind the album in the first place.

Bonnie says that “we wanted a more spontaneous and natural feeling in the music — a feeling that often is sacrificed when the musicians know they can overdub their part on a separate track until it’s perfect.” This is no doubt true, but it is also true that she wanted to cut the album at Dave “Sneaker” Ray’s new studio, which at this point only has accommodations for four-track equipment, and that Minneapolis happens to be the home of her producer, Willie Murphy.

The musicians include Junior Wells, A.C. Reed (Jimmy Reed’s brother), Murphy, a six-piece instrumental combo (The Bumblebees), in addition to her more-or-less regular backup musicians, bassist Fearless Freebo and Cambridge guitarist Peter Bell. Actually, the versions here are quite refreshing, and on only two songs does the material seem top heavy with accompaniment. On both cuts ‘Bluebird” and “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead” — the fault seems to lie not so much in attempting to channel too much background into the original recording, but in the remix. The album was remixed in Boston, and with the addition of backup vocals (by Bonnie herself and several local performers, including Reeve Little, Chris Rhodes, Paul Pena and Bell) these songs simply acquire too much unbalanced weight.

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The material on the album will be familiar to Bonnie’s admirers, the tunes are almost exclusively her “standards” — after hearing Bonnie sing Stills’ “Bluebird,” Paul Siebel’s “Any Day Woman” or Sippie Wallace’s “Mighty Tight Woman” so many times, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that she didn’t write them herself. Two of her own compositions are offered here — “Finest Lovin’ Man” and an absolutely beautiful version of her “Thank You,” in addition to her arrangements of songs by Robert and Tommy Johnson.

The entire assemblage lived together in the country during the making of the album, sandwiching recording sessions in between fishing, partying and relaxation, and what comes across more than anything else is that this must have been an enjoyable experience for everyone concerned. (On “Big Road,” for example, Junior Wells’ harp solos fill the breaks while Freebo lays down the bass line with a tuba, and “Since I Fell For You” is highlighted by A.C. Reed’s lovely, King Curtis – like tenor solo.)

It’s a remarkable album, and for the most part an achievement whose success should silence these who initially doubted the wisdom of recording a first album on four-track in a shack in the woods. As Bonnie says, it “reflects the difference between music made among friends living together in the country and the kind squeezed out trying to beat city traffic and studio clocks.”

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