Interview

Bonnie Raitt on the Power of Live

on July 15, 2020 No comments
Dean Budnick

Throughout her career, Bonnie Raitt has gained renown for her dynamic live performances as well as her commitment to addressing social injustices. These efforts have continued during the era of the coronavirus pandemic, even as the disease has taken a personal toll with the passing of her longtime friend John Prine. Shortly after recording a tribute to him, Raitt commends his “deep pathos, acerbic wit and empathetic eye, which he first shared on that masterpiece of a first album—and then he never let up.”

What has the live concert experience meant to you over the course of your career, and how do you think that might change?

One constant that will never go away is the audience connection. I’ve experienced that when I’ve been in the audience. All of us love being there with the people we love. As a performer, I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I also grew up with a father [John Raitt] who played on Broadway and did 25 consecutive years of summer stock and played regional theater until he was in his 70s and 80s. So I really know the power and the joy and the tribal connection that happens when you step on a stage.

I’ve never sold many records. I’m an artist who is standing where I am today because of the live loyalty and excitement and the magic that happened through repeat performances for those audiences. You cannot duplicate it over the internet or even on a record.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to do everything I can to get everybody back into the theaters safely. Maybe it’s multiple nights with the appropriate distance thing. We’ve all been brainstorming about how to do shows in older buildings where the ventilation systems aren’t ideal. One thing I do know is that outdoors is safer than indoors at the moment. So I’m hoping that, by next summer, we’ll have found some venues that we can go back to and different ways for people to feel safe.

What impact has the cancellation and postponement of all these shows had on the people who work behind the scenes?

Independent promoters gave me my start. That’s how I’ve been able to hone my chops and figure out what makes a good show. I learned how to perform and how to hold an audience through live performances in small venues when I was just starting.

This has been devastating to so many clubs and independent promoters and venues that are so crucial to every stage of our careers. The music industry at large— the fans, the journalists, the disc jockeys, the promotion people, the people that help make the clothes, the caterers, the security staff, the ticket takers—has been devastated by the shutdown. We don’t know whether we’re going to be able to recover, but I certainly hope so.

You mentioned that live performance can’t quite be duplicated over the internet. How do you view the role of that medium?

The pandemic has forced us to look for new ways to connect. I watched Jon Cleary’s wonderful Quarantini Happy Hour, replacing his two solo gigs in New Orleans every week with Facebook concerts. Ivan Neville is doing the same and I know there are lots of others. They take real-time questions, which is great, and real-time requests, which is something you can’t really do onstage. So the internet has its own charming way of blasting open things that wouldn’t have been possible in a live concert as easily. So it does have its good side, even if that can’t replace what all of us get from the live experience.

Throughout your career, you’ve brought attention to certain artists in need who have inspired you. While organizations like MusiCares and the Jazz Foundation of America have established COVID-19 relief funds, do you think this crisis might eventually spark a conversation about additional government support, akin to what happened during the New Deal with the Federal Art Project or the Federal Music Project?

I always tried to bring my influences out on the stage with me as much as I could. I opened for Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell and a lot of the different blues acts. Then, when my career circumstances changed a little bit, I said to people like Muddy Waters: “Instead of me opening for you, come and play the college circuit with me and you’ll develop a new audience.” We also tried really hard to get health insurance programs for the musicians because a lot of them were in poor health because they were overworked by unscrupulous booking agents, who had them play six or seven nights a week, three sets a night. And the agent still took 40 percent. When Atlantic had its big 40th anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden, I found out from Howell Begle that Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, Charles Brown and most of the people in my record collection hadn’t received royalties. That’s partially because U.S. radio, unlike the rest of the world, doesn’t pay performance royalties, only songwriting royalties. And when it came to record sales, the labels gave a 1-2 percent royalty rate up until 1970 and overcharged them for the costs of recording. To me, it was really important to be able to get financial remuneration for all these artists because we owed them so much.

I would love to see art and music and theater and dance supported by the government. The National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed, although there’s still some support. However, I think in terms of saving the cultural institutions in this country, it’s probably going to take an effort from the nonprofit world. That’s how museums, ballets and symphonies are funded. We have to do the same thing for rock-and-roll and roots music.

Artists have always sung about hypocrisy, satirized those at the top, called out what’s wrong and lifted people up for what’s right. That’s never going to change. The things that I cared about in the ‘60s and ‘70s are not a pipe dream. They’re inevitable and we’re going to keep working for them. I hope that we can still get back to the clubs and that people will want to hang out and hear live music more than ever when we find a vaccine. That way, we can support the people who are out of work that I mentioned earlier. And let’s also pay people for what they’re contributing—teachers, hospital workers, bus drivers, people that are essential workers. People deserve equal treatment, health insurance and a fair wage. That includes musicians and everybody in the music industry as well. I’m hoping that they’ll be a reckoning. People will wake up and we can figure out how to rewrite the plan.


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An audience with Bonnie Raitt

on March 20, 2020 No comments
by Richard Burnett

Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt always wanted to play into her 70s like her jazz and blues heroes. “I figured if I kept my chops,” Raitt told me some years ago, “maybe I’d be lucky to be an old blues broad.”

Well, Raitt turned 70 last November and not only has she kept her chops, but Raitt remains one of the most enduring artists of her generation. The music legend’s 12-city Canadian tour with headliner James Taylor was supposed to stop in Ottawa (April 24), Toronto (April 27) and Montreal (April 29), but due to coronavirus, the concert has been postponed to a later date.

A MESSAGE FROM BONNIE

The Canadian tour may have been postponed, but we can still enjoy some time with James. Join us on Sunday March 22 at 11am PT / 2pm ET for “A Socially Distant Visit With James Taylor” on FB! Chat with James and spend some “virtual” quality time #AtHomeTogether.

Born to a musical family (her father was Broadway musical legend John Raitt and her mother was pianist Marjorie Haydock), the 10-time Grammy winner was named by Rolling Stone as one of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Raitt sat down for a candid Q&A about her family, activism, the music business and her treasured LGBTQ fans.

It’s great to see road warriors like yourself selling out shows. Where does your commitment to live performance come from?

Bonnie Raitt: From watching my dad since I was a little girl. He performed in three big shows, the musicals Carousel, Oklahoma! and The Pajama Game. I watched him from backstage, and every night no matter where he was on a tour, he treated it like opening night.

While it’s an honour to perform for a living, it’s as much fun for us onstage as it for the people in the audience. There’s nothing like it. There is no recording that can capture the feeling. The opening-night feel and the work ethic of making every show as good as we possibly can, I really think that’s why people come back to see me and my band year after year.

You, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris used to hang out together in L.A. in the 70s. What was that like?

We used to hang out with Jackson Browne and The Eagles, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. It was an incredibly rich scene which we likened to what Paris must have been like in the 1920s. Everybody was young and there was a cross-fertilization of artists, filmmakers and photographers, fashion people and political activists. The musician singer-songwriter community was so much fun. You’d go to The Troubadour and hang out. We inspired each other. Tom Waits came up soon after, and Rickie Lee Jones. L.A. was a real musical hotbed. We were in our early twenties, there was no AIDS and we’d just gotten birth control. There was drinking and drugs, of course, but we were young and innocent and able to take it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’ve interviewed many great women Rock & Rollers and always ask for their take on the music business today. Is it still a boys club?

I never experienced it as a boys club because I was accepted as a female guitar player. I think that got me a bit more respect in the studio from male musicians. But I don’t think Linda, Emmylou or I – there was no svengali telling us what to dress like. It wasn’t that era anymore. It wasn’t the 40s, 50s or 60s. In the 70s, Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Aretha, they were captaining their own ships, and I wouldn’t have put up with anybody at a record label telling me what to wear or what to record. I didn’t experience it the way many in the pop world did. I think they had a lot less control. 

I think these days when you look at Taylor Swift using her vast social network, stars have a lot more power today to control the means of production and hire and fire their own management and lawyers. So I think the music business has changed for the good in terms of women.

One of my favourite albums is True Love by Toots and the Maytals that features your wonderful duet with Toots, True Love is Hard To Find. 

I love that record! Thank you! It sounds like we love the same kind of music. I am a huge Toots Hibbert fan. I first heard Toots and the Maytals when I was just out of college. In Boston, The Harder They Come played at our local theatre. I loved Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, everyone on that soundtrack. But Toots is my absolute favourite and I cut True Love is Hard To Find on my Nine Lives album in 1985. I had already met Toots, and years later after we played at some festivals, I told him, “One day we have to record together.” Then his duets record came up years later. I love him so much, I’m just so glad to talk to somebody who even mentions his name!

What was it like for you after your parents passed away in 2004-2005?

I appreciated them when they were alive and, like all of us, as we watch them get older and are lucky to have them in their elder years, you’re basically caught up helping them deal with getting older, whether they have dementia or arthritis or require surgeries. After they passed away, who they were as younger people, in my childhood and young adulthood, all those eras came back to me more. Now that they’re gone, they live in me. I am so appreciative of the gift they gave me.

My mom and I were at odds with each other sometimes. She was frustrated. She was from a generation that gave up her career to raise the kids and she never really got credit for all of her contributions as music director for my dad. They divorced when I was about 19. They both remarried and were very happy, but who they were as young people and what they meant to me with their political activism, that has stayed with me.

My dad took me to my first BB King concert when I was 15 and 30 years later I brought my dad to his first Bonnie Raitt concert. Sitting next to my dad was this young gay teen who was absolutely thrilled with your performance. I realized that night just how big an LGBTQ following you have. 

I meet a lot of gay women, especially at receptions after my shows and for various political things. But I wasn’t aware I had a big following in the community. That’s fantastic to hear. I’m thrilled! As the daughter of a Broadway performer, I grew up around dancers and singers backstage. So the guys I had crushes on were not interested in me! My best friends were always gay guys and I completely understood the Judy Garland connection. When I was a young feminist, I also had tremendous interplay with the lesbian community in the gay women’s movement.

I must ask you about your personal style, from the boots to the suits. You wear it well.

(Beaming) Oh my god thank you so much! I actually work with a stylist. I take a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, this makes my butt look good, and this makes my boots look good. I almost never go (retail) shopping because I need something that allows me to play the guitar and that’s not too hot. Working with a stylist has become so creative. We have a great Armenian tailor in L.A. who creates the shirts that we design together. It’s been one of my great creative outlets that folks don’t know about. As you get older you also lower your heels and accommodate. Thank god for shapewear, that’s all I can say!

You were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 by Melissa Etheridge. What was that night like? 

I had to compose myself. Melissa hit it out of the park. It was a great honour, and to receive it from Melissa and then perform together, it really meant the world to me.

Your cross-Canada tour with James Taylor is a dream concert bill. Will you and JT sing a song or two together?

We do! He comes out at the end of my set, and then I’ll do a couple with him, and then one of my favourite moments ever is at the end of the show. I won’t spoil it.

How does it feel to be called a living legend? Because you are.

I don’t think of myself that way. I just feel like someone who went into my dad’s line of work. That I’ve reached this point and lasted this long – I’m 33 years sober and that really helps. That living legend stuff, I’ll take the living part. 

For more Bonnie Raitt tour dates, visit bonnieraitt.com.

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MUSICIANS ON MUSICIANS Bonnie Raitt & Brandi Carlile

on November 2, 2019 No comments
By Patrick Doyle

“She illuminated the path I could have,” Carlile says as she sits down with her hero for the first time. “She taught me I could lead and not apologize.”

On a recent L.A. afternoon, Brandi Carlile is talking about the moment when everything changed for her. It was the 2019 Grammys, when she played her ballad “The Joke” live and took home three awards. “I was 39, kind of an outlier underdog character,” says Carlile. That week, her sixth album, By the Way, I Forgive You, went to Number 22. She recently sold out Madison Square Garden. “I went on vacation, and never put down my phone,” she says of the award show’s aftermath. “I was obsessed.”

“I’ve been there,” says Bonnie Raitt, sitting across from her. In 1989, Raitt released her 10th album, Nick of Time. It sold more than 5 million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, making her a superstar at age 40. “You’re in hyperspace after that,” Raitt says.

Hard-won success is only the beginning of the similarities between the two artists. In addition to building cult followings, both have used their music as a platform for activism. (Raitt has campaigned for clean energy, Native American rights, and more over the years; Carlile has raised money for kids affected by war and for imprisoned women.) “Bonnie illuminated the path I could have,” says Carlile.

Before the interview is over, Carlile has one request: “If you could just teach me one or two slide-guitar licks.” Raitt responds: “It would be my pleasure. I get so much acclaim for doing stuff that just sounds like ‘whooo,’ ” as she slides up an air guitar. Carlile is ecstatic: “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

Brandi, how did you first hear Bonnie’s music?

CARLILE I remember singing “Something to Talk About” all the time as a kid. One of my most significant times was when I moved out of the house and in with my first girlfriend, Jessica. I was 17 and we were huge fans, and we wanted to go listen to you play and we couldn’t get a ticket, so we sat outside the fence and listened to your voice reverberate around Washington state. It was a big moment, a beautiful memory.

RAITT That is so sweet. I would have let you in if I had known. I’m gonna be a mess in this interview, because I’ve never been with anyone that talked about me before. I haven’t ever heard anyone say they were influenced by me.

CARLILE We get together and talk about you all the time. Do you ever hear yourself in my voice?

RAITT Well, I hear the attitude. I wish I could have the range and sing like you do. But if I could, I would sing like you.

CARLILE The song that speaks to me the most is “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The empathy is just unbelievable. I feel really vulnerable when I sing it, in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with.

RAITT Is it because you’ve been through that situation yourself?

CARLILE I think it’s because I am not strong enough to go through that situation myself. So when I put myself there, I almost can’t handle the thought of being that person.

RAITT I’m so grateful for the writers that sent me that song. Every night, I’m reminded of being left when someone was not in love with me anymore. I think it was even worse to have to be the one to break somebody’s heart because you don’t love them anymore. I’ve been through both sides of that. I always dedicate it to someone going through a heartache. I’ve gotten letters from people saying, “I’ve never seen my husband cry except when you sing that song.” Now I’m gonna cry.

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