Long before Bonnie Raitt was synonymous with the Grammys, she acknowledged her debt to the blues figures who influenced her. She toured with her now-deceased mentors Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace, she recorded with John Lee Hooker (they shared a blues Grammy this year) and now she has Charles Brown as an opening act on the biggest tour of her career.
Raitt, 40, also is connected to her fellow contemporary blues practitioners. She dedicated her concert Monday night at the Minnesota State Fair to Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in helicopter crash yesterday morning.
“I’ll turn this feeling around,” Raitt said last night. “That’s why the blues was invented.”
That’s what her head thought, anyway; her heart often felt otherwise. She admitted last night she was wearing her heart on her sleeve so she warned that she’d have a difficult time singing ballads on this “lump-in-the-throat kind of day.” But her performance rated two thumbs up — on the ballads, rockers, blues, R&B, guitar, you name it. It was certainly the most emotional concert among the many that Raitt has given here since she recorded her 1971 debut album on an island in Lake Minnetonka.
Raitt performed with more sass and attitude in her eyes and in her strut. As always, her slide guitar was smokin.’ Her voice was strong and passionate, especially on the ballads.
An acoustic version of Paul Siebel’s “Louise,” about a prostitute “who died that afternoon,” found Raitt misty-eyed, and her poignant performance made many of the 16,607 fans feel the same. Her encore of the piano ballad, “Nick of Time,” was dedicated to Vaughan, whom she said inspired her to play the blues without “the torture” of booze and drugs. “Nick of Time,” which was released in early 1989, was the first album she has recorded sober. Last night, she said it was the first time she’d ever had to deal with the loss of someone close to her while she was sober.
Raitt’s 85-minute set was heavy on tunes from “Nick of Time,” which won the Grammy in February for album of the year. Longtime fans might have yearned for more oldies and more jams from Raitt’s excellent six-man band. The solos by Raitt, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, saxophonist Marty Grebb and Minneapolis harmonica player Pat Hayes were hot but invariably short and to the point.
It wasn’t until “Willya Wontcha,” a Schell tune, that the band truly jammed, with Raitt and Schell trading off fiery guitar lines. Piano man Brown joined in for the encore of “Think,” during which Hayes was given extra room to move. And then Raitt and her band turned “Give It Up” into a blazing Dixieland delight.
A truncated version of the band cooked on an acoustic rendition of the bluesy “Drop Down Baby” and Raitt’s “The Road’s My Middle Name,” during which a drawing of a full moon was hoisted over the painted mountains that served as a backdrop. A face cryptically painted into the moon looked a bit like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The Jeff Healey Band, the trio that kicked off the evening, offered a scorching encore of Vaughan’s “Called Shot,” during which Healey played a quiet, emotional guitar solo. Healey mentioned how he had been with Vaughan just 48 hours earlier in Wisconsin. (Raitt also had attended that show, featuring Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray.)
Last night, the Healey trio smoked from its first song. However, the material was inconsistent (the noisy rocker “Full Circle” and the Cray-like “I Think I Love You Too Much” didn’t measure up to “Blue Jean Blues” and “Angel Eyes”), and the 50-minute performance was not as awesome as his headlining concert last year at the Guthrie Theater.
Brown, who followed Healey, was a genuine treat. Raitt introduced him as a bluesman who started out in 1945 and influenced everyone from Ray Charles to Chuck Berry. Brown’s 20-minute cameo of uptown nightclub blues showed the 67-year-old to be a terrific piano stylist, as he drifted stylistically through New Orleans, Kansas City and his home state of Texas.
Jeff (Healey) (1966-2008) was one of the sweetest, most humble and talented artists I’ve met. He had a truly unique and soulful style of guitar playing, was a great singer and such an incredible fan of a wide range of music, all of which he seemed to be able to ace. I was floored to hear his Trad Jazz band and find out that was him on Trumpet and Trombone. He gave us so much in way too short a life.
One of my favorite memories of our touring together in the early 90’s, was when we both went on the swinging chair on chains ride before one of our State Fair gigs. His drummer had to take off from our line and go back to sound check and just left me with Jeff to get him safely on the ride.
I was so nervous but he put me at great ease and I loved seeing the huge grin, hearing him laugh as we swung way high above the crowd. Fearless and like a kid. Just like he was in his music.
– Bonnie Raitt