Penny Valentine – Sounds, November 1975
BONNIE RAITT is an intriguing talent, firmly rooted in the music of men like Otis Rush and Fred McDowell whom she met and worked with in her late teens.
She has an inherent quality in her voice, in her interpretation of a song, not just admirably suited to contemporary blues but ready to give them the kind of fearless personal exposure and involvement that has made me regard her as a walking miracle. Aside from that she is also an excellent musician – playing acoustic, electric and bottleneck with power and fire. You will have noted that where Bonnie Raitt moves I follow lauding – though not, I hope, blinded.
So far she has been an inconsistent album talent, switching producers over five sets – the best still being Taking My Time put together by John Hall with Lowell George’s spirited ear never too far away – yet never hitting the market as a viable commercial entity. After the last minor disaster Streetlights with Jerry Ragavoy, Bonnie Raitt was set to cut this next album in an optimistic mood. She’d just completed a sell-out US tour with her fine band – Freebo, Will McFarlane, Dennis Whitted and Jai Winding; she was going into the studios with Paul Rothchild whose previous struts included Paul Butterfield sessions. So far so good. She felt the album would be ‘nice, bluesy, kind of backyard music.’
Well it ain’t. Unless Ms Raitt’s backyard is a less exciting place than I’d imagined. Home Plate certainly isn’t a bad album in the general sense of the word. I suspect some people will even consider it her best so far and others will put it on as background music and settle in to it quite happily. It may even sell more than the others. But far from giving Raitt the kind of sympathetic kick that Hall gave her for Time, Rothchild seems to have been more concerned with turning her into an all-round attractive vocalist. Now this is what Bonnie isn’t. She is not one of the hundred good LA backup singers. She works best on material that gives her room to manoeuvre and feel her way in, she needs a challenge. Give her a selection of songs she can sing in her bath and she’ll turn in a competent but unstartling performance. Give her arrangements that are heavy with strings, fussy, groaning under the weight of backing vocals mixed to the front – however impressive the list may be, with Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne – and she stops bruising herself on the songs. And that’s what Rothchild has done. (If he did it with Ms Raitt’s blessing so much the worse.)
A lot of songs here are lightweight anyway – Toussaint’s ‘What’s The Boy To Do’, simply pleasant when it could have been liberated (she said she’d do a boy’s blues one day); the Halls’ ‘Good Enough’, springy when it could have been chunky; ‘Walk Out The Front Door’, unmemorable. ‘Pleasin’ Each Other’ with Jerry Jumonville’s sax solo and Souther’s ‘Run Like A Thief’, with Will McFarlane’s guitar run only to be ruined by the dreadful intrusion of the backup, come close. But the nearest she comes to getting down are on Nan Byrne’s Rabelaisian ‘Sweet & Shine Eyes’; Kin Vassy’s struggling ‘My First Night Alone Without You’, and ‘Sugar Mama’ where Bonnie plays her one and only guitar break on slide alongside Hall’s lead and the result makes you long for more.
Home Plate is a bland uneventful album – a musical marshmallow tied up with too much blue ribbon. There’s no fine intelligence overseeing it. Raitt is an honest, awkward, sometimes brilliant artist yet to realise her full potential. Rothchild has managed to make her sound bland, has knocked all the black and blue out of her voice, made her a nice white lady. I’m off to play Taking My Time.