Bonnie Raitt – Tipping Point Fire Relief Benefit – Fox Theater Oakland CA 2018-03-20
Bonnie Raitt, whose hits include “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Something to Talk About,” will spend most of this year away from her Marin County home, playing a mix of solo shows and stadium co-headliners with James Taylor. But the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer plans to make time for a couple of benefit concerts along the way, like the one she’s doing for the Tipping Point’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The Chronicle caught her on the phone while the 68-year-old star was taking a breather in Los Angeles, where she had slipped out from tour rehearsals to sit on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
A: I was there for the first four days and it was devastating. I have four friends who lost everything. With this benefit, I wanted to try to raise some funds for the more underserved communities in the North Bay that don’t have as much access to legal rights; or they’re immigrants afraid to file claims. I also want to be able to help the clinics that are dealing with the ongoing emotional trauma that people are going through. There’s a lot more support that’s going to be needed down the line.
Q: You did a stadium tour with James Taylor last year and now you’re doing it again. Did you enjoy playing in ballparks more than you expected?
A: Wrigley Field and Fenway were a real honor. Most of the shows we did last year were in sports arenas, so when we finally got outside it was like a big party. But if I even think about how many people are going to be out there, it freaks me out.
Q: It must feel good that so many people still turn out to see you.
A: Honestly, the fact that so many legacy artists are retiring or passing away, I think people know it may be an important chance to see people they have developed a longtime relationship with. I feel the same way they do. I want to get it while we’re at the top of our game. For people who love playing live as much as James and I do, that’s where the magic happens.
Q: You have been opening your set with a cover of INXS’ “Need You Tonight.” How does that go over?
A: Oh, my God. When I first started to do it, it made me shiver a little bit. It’s a pretty sexual song. When I started opening shows with it I was like, “Whoa, I’ve got to match this for the next two hours!”
Q: Has it been hard to avoid getting political onstage this year when you see so much of your work undone?
A: It’s a challenge every day to know what happened while we were asleep. You can’t even make up how absurd and painful this is. As far as I’m concerned, we have to get money out of politics — this isn’t a democracy. That’s about as far as I’ll go. A lot of people aren’t necessarily in agreement with my politics, so I don’t hit them over the head with it. I’m just really glad I have an electric guitar to turn up when I’m pissed off.
Bonnie Raitt and Her Band: 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 20. $55-$500. The Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. http://thefoxoakland.com
More than 40 years after scoring her first hit with 1977’s “Runaway,” Bay Area music legend Bonnie Raitt is still making some of the most intriguing and engaging music of her career.
That’s pretty clear from listening to the recent offering “Dig in Deep,” which finds Raitt taking the album’s title to heart — and digging in very deep — on a dozen solid tunes that range from blues rockers to big ballads.
Overall, it’s another great edition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s catalog, which also includes such multiplatinum albums as 1989’s “Nick of Time” and 1991’s “Luck of the Draw.”
Raitt is supporting the new platter with a quick run through California, which kicks off March 15 at the City National Civic in San Jose. The singer-songwriter-guitarist and her talented sidemen — guitarist George Marinelli, drummer Ricky Fataar, bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson and keyboardist Jon Cleary — also perform March 20 at the Fox Theater in Oakland in a benefit for Tipping Point’s Fire Relief Fund.
I recently had the chance to chat with 10-time-Grammy winner about “Dig in Deep,” her great band and other topics.
Q: Hi, Bonnie. Thanks so much for calling me. Where are you today?
A: I am calling you from Northern California. I am right over the (Golden Gate) bridge. I live in Marin County most of the time. I go to L.A. as well, but mostly I’m up north.
Q: I knew you had a house in the Marin area, but I wasn’t sure if you spent more time there or in Los Angeles. After all, you are a SoCal native.
A: For the last 25 years, I’ve spent a good portion of my time in this part (of California) when I’m not traveling. And then, I’d say, about a third of my time I’m in Los Angeles.
Q: While I was waiting for you to call today, I had the chance to spin the new album again and I have to say you sound great on it. Take me a little bit behind the creation of “Dig in Deep.”
A: The process I use to make my albums is pretty much the same. We tour two or three years off of each album. And it takes about a year to get the promotion and the sets and the rehearsals and the website designed and the artwork. So, all together, it’s almost a four-, five-year process.
After my last (tour in support of 2012’s “Slipstream”) finished, I set about figuring out what I wanted to say — because it was going to be album No. 20 and I have covered a lot of material, lyrically and musically. So, this time, I was able to co-write and come up with about five songs — a couple by myself and three that I co-wrote, to try to add some different grooves into my live show, primarily.
Q: There is indeed no shortage of styles and feels on the album.
A: There’s a gospel shuffle on piano — I wanted to play the piano. There’s a personal ballad that I close the record with. Then there’s just a whole mix of great R&B and rock ’n’ roll and different flavored songs that I tend to gravitate toward.
There’s a pretty political song that I wrote with my guitar player (Marinelli) called “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through.” Great Los Lobos cover — “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” — and the usual funk and R&B. So, hopefully, people got a good dose of what they like about me and some new stuff as well.
Bonnie Raitt’s “Unintended Consequence of Love,” which opens her latest album, “Dig in Deep,” is obviously sung from the perspective of a woman challenging her drifting partner to reengage in their relationship.
Though, as written, the song also sounds like it could be about the frustrating push/pull of the creative process with one’s muse.
“Well, I hadn’t ever thought about the song that way,” Raitt says, laughing. “But now, it’s all I’ll think about. So, thanks … .”
Still, the idea fits Raitt’s career, which is a decades-spanning relationship between her and all the music that has caught her attention over the years. She soaked up the ’60s and showed up in the ’70s with a vibrant music that drew from that decade’s folk and blues. Her early records still sound great, but she struggled in the ’80s before releasing “Nick of Time” in 1989, which won her an armful of Grammys and sold millions of copies.
“At one point, I just thought she was too good to be appreciated by popular culture at large,” says her tourmate James Taylor. “But then she went into the ’90s behind that amazingly perfect album. So good she could not be ignored.”
Since then, Raitt has refined a style of her own: some blues and some smart ballads, many flavored with her slide-guitar licks. Prior to her Tuesday show with Taylor at the Toyota Center, Raitt talked about her career and also legendary blues singer and Houston native Sippie Wallace, who wrote three of the songs that appeared on Raitt’s first two albums.
Q: It feels weird starting with the new album’s last song, but “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” is my favorite on there. It’s a moving piece of music and doesn’t sound like much else you’ve done.
A:Thank you. I do think something happens when I write on the piano. I guess I have a few of those: “Circle Dance,” “One Part Be My Lover.” “Nick of Time” was done on piano. I think I tend to sing the more personal songs on the piano, the contemplative ones. I’ve always loved a good ballad. It’s just one part of what I do.
Q: I always thought underneath the big ’80s sound, INXS was a great bar band. You kind of proved that point with “Need You Tonight.”
A: The production style was so different back then, wasn’t it? But I loved that song since I first heard it. And I loved the band. I didn’t really realize at the time how huge they were. There was a time they were as big as the Stones. I’ve since met Andrew Farriss, who was a co-writer on that song with Michael (Hutchence). I was relieved he liked the way we did his tune. But it’s something I love to do: Take a song and try to make it my own. I guess I’ve been doing it since my first album.
Q: Since your father was a Broadway star, you probably grew up with a different variety of music around the house. I think some assume you were fed just a steady diet of blues.
A: Yes, I was a kid of my own generation, so I loved Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, even before I was a teen. And like everybody else, I came to the Chicago and Detroit blues through the Stones. When I was a teenager, I went to Muddy Waters through them. The country blues, I got from those Vanguard blues albums, “Blues at Newport ’63” and “ ’64,” those were my a-ha moments. I heard John Hammond and Dave Van Ronk playing the blues, and Paul Butterfield. I thought these guys had to be 100 years old with a life picking cotton to play the blues, and they made me realize you didn’t. I fell in love with the blues then and taught myself to play, not because I wanted to be in music as a profession. As a hobby, it seemed like everybody played guitar. But I’d never heard anything I loved as much as Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee.
Q: Did you set out to find this hybrid between those old blues songs and the contemporary ’70s singer-songwriter types? Your voice fit both well.
A: It’s funny, when I hear myself sing on those early records, I just cringe. I think my voice sounds so rinky dink and thin. So I tried my best to drink and smoke until I could sing R&B and not cringe. (Laughs.) Which wasn’t a great idea. But my phrasing comes from a lot of places: Ruth Brown, Aretha Franklin, my friend Maria Muldaur. A wide range of Irish and Celtic music, blues and pop, and the stuff my dad did, too. Even if I don’t sing like Broadway singers do, I was in this musical family and soaked it all up. I think that’s why my tastes are so eclectic. I never wanted to just be a blues artist. I get bored sticking with any one thing.
Q: Your pace for new records has slowed over the past 15 or so years. Is that by design? Or do you just find yourself waiting a little longer for a new batch of songs?
A: The cycles are a little longer. I put out a record and spend two years touring behind it. Doing interviews. And there’s all this advance work that has to get done before the album comes out. So it’s more like a four-year cycle, then you get a break. So I don’t know what comes next. But it is a more daunting process when you get to double digits with albums. You feel like you’ve sung one idea so many times. And I don’t want to repeat myself, musically or lyrically. I’m very envious of my friends – Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and James Taylor – who wrote all new material and still sound brilliant at this point in their lives without any new heartbreaks.
Q: I’m always eager to hear from people who knew Sippie Wallace. I think you did three of her songs on the first two albums. Do you recall how you came across her work?
A:As I got older, I was able to hear more records because people had them in their college dorms and shared their collections. In high school, I didn’t have access to radio and records the way I did in college, where my musical education expanded exponentially. So I listened to these classic blues collections that included Bessie Smith, but also Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey. I was drawn to Sippie before I even knew she was still alive. I remember, after my freshman year traveling around Europe, and I pawed through this record store with a lot of vintage blues albums. And I saw this album Sippie made in the ’60s. The picture was great: She had this faux leopard stole and the rhinestone cat glasses. And that big space between her teeth, where she got that name. I couldn’t believe it. She looked so alive. And I found out the Kweskin Jug Band recorded with her. I only found out she was alive years later. I was playing the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in ’72. We’d cut some of her songs, and I remember we didn’t know where to send the royalty checks. We found out she was in Detroit! So I got this chance to meet her. She was only doing gospel at that time. But people went crazy for her. We toured together for parts of 15 years because she had this revived career.
Q: Her songs didn’t sound like others. There was an assertiveness and a frankness in her lyrics.
A:Yes, I just loved her sass and independence. She was not a victim at all. And there was a playfulness to her, and a strength and cleverness that set her apart. I remember we did a fantastic show with her for Juneteenth, I think it was in Houston. But I remember her fondly. She was endearing, smart and funny.
Q: Do you remember your first guitar?
A: Of course. It was a Stella guitar that cost $24 from Sears. I begged for it for Christmas. My grandfather taught me my first chords. And I was off, learning Joan Baez and Odetta. I found F challenging. I still do. It resulted in some bleeding fingers. I do this series with kids in cities who don’t have access to music education. They come up and ask me questions. And I tell them, “Listen, F doesn’t get any easier. But keep at it.”
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