It has been more than a decade since singer, songwriter, slide guitarist and political activist Bonnie Raitt was in New Zealand. GRAHAM REID catches up
Bonnie Raitt lets go a gutsy laugh and says blues clubs ain’t what they used to be. “The club circuit has dried up here in America because people our age don’t go out any more, or they don’t drink as much. From what my friends tell me the kind of women who do go and hang out in bars aren’t that pretty. They are these kinda skanky biker girls, so young guys won’t go there as often.
“So I’m hoping that will change and there will be some sexiness around, and the heat that used to make juke joints so appealing.”
And she lets go another gutsy laugh.
But with Raitt – who brings her own heat and sexiness to a stage – this was never going to be just a chat about skanky women and the blues she is grounded in, the “best of” collection which was released last year as a stop-gap between proper albums, or her increasing love of African music finding its way into her catalogue.
Born to a Quaker family in California 54 years ago, Raitt has a lifelong history of political activism. She goes on marches, was arrested three years ago at a Chicago protest over an American multi-national’s logging practices, hands out pamphlets on the streets and plays benefit gigs for issues she believes in.
Raitt is hands-on but also a behind-the-scenes worker and generous contributor to causes from eco-awareness to women’s rights and Native American activism. Latterly she has had a high profile in the struggle to maintain civil liberties in America in the face of the Patriot Act passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Raitt’s website has an “activism” section where you can check her benefit-playing history, the work of groups she belongs to in the rebuilding of Iraq, and offering links to various non-profit organisations.
So while music is on the agenda for a conversation in advance of her first show here since a blinder at the Logan Campbell Centre in 92, her politics filter through.
For example: Bonnie, any particular highlights last year?
“The highpoint would be our European tour, to get out of the US and give Europeans a shot at what the rest of Americans are thinking so they don’t think we’re just all latched up behind the new world imperialist order.”
Raitt laughs but she’s serious. We’ve begun by talking about her saying that politically this was the worst time in America in her lifetime. Given she was there in the civil rights era, the Vietnam protests and the anti-Reagan battles that’s some statement. It’s not just this administration, she says, but how Americans are perceived abroad which worries her.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been regarded with as little esteem as we are now, and the debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan has hurt our standing, economically as well as politically. Domestically what’s happened with medical care, environmental protection, civil rights, privacy, and free speech? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as threatened as it is now.
“Basically Congress has undone 20 years of environmental protection legislation, just slashed it. It’s beyond infuriating for those of us who have been working for human rights and justice, for them to undo all we thought was written into law.
“The thing that makes it especially problematic is that there is no democracy without an informed electorate. But if the right of the political spectrum is controlling the ways people are getting political information – and the computerised election machines are being bought by a company controlled by an out-and-out Republican contributor, so there is no way to get into the software to track whether there is fraud or fooling with election results – you’ve got serious problems for a democracy. Especially if you are only getting one political viewpoint and everyone else is considered unpatriotic.”
An activist and ordinary citizen could feel defeated by this but Raitt is optimistic about the Democrats’ chances.
“Don’t forget Bush didn’t win the election,” she laughs. “There are many more people upset about the way things are going than is being reported in the polls. I’m not being simplistic, there are polls and there are polls.”
There is also music which is how she has made her living for thirtysomething years. Raitt might not command the same large audience she did a decade ago when she was springing radio hits like her cover of John Hiatt’s Thing Called Love or the sexy Something to Talk About from her 91 Grammy-grabbing Nick of Time album – but she can ride the ups and downs.
Her career started with a lot of downs and in Raitt lore there were years under the bottle, and a decade when record companies didn’t know what to do with her. By the late 80s she looked like a promising contender who never quite made it.
Then there was a series of remarkably mature albums in the early 90s: Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts.
Those albums, relentless touring and her sassy stage presence – the long red hair, the brilliant slide guitar work, the nail hard or heartfelt delivery of lyrics – made Raitt something close to a star.
In part because her music is founded on the blues – she is active in numerous blues organisations and an articulate advocate for blues artists – it has more depth than the pastel pop of some of her peers.
Last year was her year of years: it was a celebration of blues in America and Raitt was in the frontline. She appeared on television specials and at festivals, and sang duets with three of her all-time heroes: Toots and the Maytals, Ray Charles and Al Green.
“So I can sing the praises of this year for many to come. And there were those European festivals. One night we’d be with Motorhead and ZZ Top, and the next day with [Cuban singer] Ibrahim Ferrer, Van Morrison, [jazz bassist] Charlie Haden and be followed by Toots and the Maytals and the Bembeya Jazz Orchestra.
“They were fantastically varied festivals and the [European] audience’s ability to accept many kinds of music on the same bill astounds me. It’s fun to go on tour and celebrate the kind of music that we do. We don’t sell that many records outside the US so we don’t get to go as often as we like.”
These days Raitt doesn’t sell inside the US what she once did. As with many artists her age she is outside the demographic for most radio stations. Raitt has hardly stood still and waited for acceptance at radio, however. She has followed her own compass and her past two albums have included tracks with African influences.
“I defy anyone to listen to the music of Africa and not dance around. Those two albums The Indestructible Beat of Soweto are my favourite records. Between Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and those two I couldn’t choose if I was to take one to a desert island.”
Three years ago Raitt went to Mali, travelled to villages where some of the great griot musicians live and jammed with them. It fulfilled a dream she’d had since the mid 70s when she first heard albums by the West African juju guitarist King Sunny Ade. Recently she’s been playing alongside her friend Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe whose Hear Me Lord was a standout on her last album Silver Lining.
She’s has been “sniffing around” for material for a new album, but has been sidetracked by the offer to come to Australia and New Zealand – with her road-tested band from Silver Lining – and a year which celebrated the blues.
“Blues is sex, anger, revenge, longing and all the juicier aspects of the human condition. And it talks about the truth. R’n’b and blues is the root of all the popular music, whether it’s Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles it is still groove-based and comes out of people’s need to be dancing and feel sexy.
And with another gutsy laugh she adds, “It appeals to the lower chakras as it were.”* Bonnie Raitt is at the Auckland Town Hall on Wednesday, February 4.