Many activists from the 1960s and ’70s grew up never trusting anyone over 30. Not Bonnie Raitt.
Raitt, 66, one of just a handful of artists to make Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 singers and its top 100 guitarists of all time, grew up listening to her parents. She emulated her late father, musical theatre legend John Raitt.
Bonnie Raitt will perform Saturday at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio in what will be a return engagement in the desert in more ways than one. She has given memorable performances with her long-time core band at the McCallum Theatre and The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino. But she grew up coming to the desert.
“Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, from like 1958 to 1964, we would camp out in Blythe and out in the Mojave Desert, before it was off limits,” Raitt said from her home in Marin County. “My dad and my mom went to the University of Redlands and their sorority and fraternity brothers and sisters had kids and we all had campers and 1943 Army surplus Jeeps.
We towed the Jeeps behind the campers and we would camp out for like a week. We’d go Jeeping, we called it, through old river beds and exploring the mines. So, I spent a lot of my childhood really enjoying the beauty of those deserts.”
Her father performed in regional stock theatre every summer, so Bonnie spent many summers in camps back in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Those experiences informed her love of the environment, but she took that a step further than most kids who grew up paddling canoes and hiking in the woods. She was a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy and an integral part of the No Nukes group. She’s been involved with groups like the Abalone Alliance, Alliance for Survival and Reverb, a non-profit environmental organization that she supported with tours in 2005 and 2006.
But she also learned that from her elders.
“A lot of my political activism was from my folks and my camp directors being Quaker,” she said. “There was a lot of emphasis on people from different lands all getting along, learning about different cultures, protecting the environment and working for peace and justice. That was really put into me as a young kid.
“My parents became Quakers right after the second world war. As kids, they were very active in the ban-the-bomb rallies and the civil rights marches. We raised money for refugees from war-torn areas. Stopping the oil drilling and protection of the redwoods was something friends of my parents were very much involved with. So, by the time I got into high school and the Vietnam War was raging (along with) the Watts riots, it was very natural for me, especially in college, to be part of those demonstrations.”
Raitt won’t use her concert appearances as a soapbox for her political views, unless it’s at a benefit for a specific cause. She recognizes that many of her fans have different political leanings, so she usually only talks politics when introducing a song off her latest album, “Dig in Deep,” called “Comin’ Around Is Going Through.”
“I feel like people come to concerts to hear music, not to be preached to,” she said. “But, having said that, I wrote a song on this record about the way the system is broken and, whether you’re from the progressive left or the hard alt-right, the fact is, money is controlling too much of who gets into office and who decides legislation. It’s not really a democracy if everything is bought. I sort of say (that) when I introduce ‘Comin’ Around Is Going Through.’ I wrote that song specifically for anybody from any side that feels the system is broken.”
Raitt’s greatest passion is performing live. She records new material to have new songs to play in concert and help her win over people that “wonder if you’ve lost it.”
She learned that from her dad, too. She grew up singing his Broadway show tunes in the back seat of the family car. She developed a greater love for the folk music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and the blues of artists like Sippie Wallace and John Lee Hooker in the 1960s. But the way she approaches her concerts was influenced by John Raitt.
“The real payoff for me is what happens between the audience and us and how exciting it is that every night is opening night,” she said. “The spirit of the crowd and the loyalty and passion they have, it just makes you want to play your heart out. I learned that from my dad. Every show he played was opening night.”
Folk artists were the antithesis of standards singers like John Raitt. Pete Seeger, the link between Dylan and Baez and their influences, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, taught kids at camps like the ones Bonnie Raitt attended to develop progressive values; pop singers like Raitt and Frank Sinatra were given material by publishers and A&R men to generate royalties. Most of the rock generation of the 1960s rejected the Tin Pan Alley factory system that nurtured artists like Raitt and Sinatra.
Raitt, like other rockers of her generation, respected the older generation of blues and folk artists. She continues to champion her elders by including songs by Wallace and B.B. King in her concerts.
“The people I grew up really idolizing were – I love Robert Johnson, but the great Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell. They’re two of my favorite guitar players and delta players,” she said. “I have a real affinity for the Delta Mississippi blues. Even Skip James and J.B. Lenoir. J.B. is from Chicago, but he was originally from Alabama. The delta blues for me is the stuff that gets me to do this.”
Now, after 10 Grammy Awards and a Grammy nomination for “Dig in Deep,” B.B. King’s Bluesville satellite radio station on SiriusXM is calling Raitt “the queen of the modern blues.” She finds it especially satisfying that a younger generation is now looking up to her the way she once admired her elders.
“It’s nice to be at this level of being a great doyenne and having younger people come up saying they grew up listening to me,” she said. “I didn’t really notice I had reached that level until the Americana Awards started happening. I got a lifetime achievement award (in 2012) and I won an Americana Album of the Year. So, it sort of came around when I hit my 60s. I looked up to John Lee Hooker and Sippie Wallace and Muddy Waters when I was a young woman coming up. Now they say they’re looking to me for that same thing. So, I’m really proud that I’m somebody they admire and respect.”
Bonnie Raitt in concert
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Drive, Indio
Information: (760) 342-5000
Source: © Copyright The Desert Sun