Reviews

30 Years of ‘Nick of Time’: How Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Underdog Record’ Swept the Grammys & Saved Her Career

on March 21, 2019 No comments
by Natalie Weiner

Before Nick of Time became perhaps the biggest Cinderella story in Grammy history — as well as the cement to Bonnie Raitt’s now-unshakeable legacy as a singular song interpreter and advocate for the blues tradition, and the soundtrack to so many ‘90s babies’ childhoods — it was a last-ditch effort to salvage the career of a cult-favorite artist who had just hit rock bottom.

“Nobody expected it to sell well,” Raitt says now. “They just said, ‘We’re not going to pay a lot of money for you, so just make a record that you want.’”

The record she wanted, as it turned out, was an understated, beautiful expression of both personal and artistic self-assurance. Nick of Time’s stripped-down but polished sound wasn’t revolutionary to her fans, who’d long appreciated Raitt’s combination of remarkable musical talent and no-nonsense attitude. But to mainstream listeners, her ability to package an impressively wide array of blues, country, R&B and pop songs into one seamless, mostly analog album was a welcome sea change from the heavily produced, homogenized hits of the era.

It was Raitt’s 10th studio album, but her first to crack the Billboard 200’s top 25. Over nearly 20 years, she’d gone from prodigy college dropout to undeniable live performer, whose recorded catalog was filled with uncompromising roots music and major label attempts to channel her obvious gifts into pop success.

And at the very moment when that seemed the least likely, the impossible happened: the right artist made the right album at the right time. A critical darling who had flirted with the musical mainstream for decades made a classic paean to the trials and benefits of aging that was bold and approachable at once. And its biggest hit wasn’t even the one whose music video co-starred a hunky Dennis Quaid and went into heavy rotation on the then-nascent VH1.

The narrative was obvious: The press drooled about the then-39-year-old’s “comeback” from substance abuse and obscurity, and was agog that a woman “of a certain age” — as some outlets put it in an attempt at diplomacy — might reach a wide audience singing about her own life experience.

“It actually didn’t bother me at all,” Raitt, now 69, says with characteristic frankness. “Especially because the title song is about exactly that. A lot of the circumstances besides age came together to bring that album such wide attention, but I’ve never minded talking about my age. Something I’m proud of.”

The Recording Academy didn’t mind either, sending Raitt home with all four Grammys she was nominated for at the 1990 ceremony, including album of the year — which she accepted in stocking feet after breaking a heel during one of her many trips to the stage. The album has since sold over five million copies, and more importantly, revitalized the career of one of America’s most important roots musicians.

Looking back, the album wears its age almost as well as Raitt herself — both, it seems, are timeless.

“I have so many people to come shows with their mothers, or with three generations, saying ‘My mom played this album for me in the car when I was little, and you’re one of the artists that means the most to us,’” says Raitt. “It means so much to me that Nick of Time resonated with so many women, especially. I never expected it to have the response it did.”

*******

“Out of the worst thing came the best thing.”

After failing to get the kind of hits that might have made her seven-figure deal with Warner Bros. seem worthwhile to label execs, Raitt was dropped unceremoniously by the label. She fell into a rough patch during which her self-described “road-dog” lifestyle began to catch up with her. Producer Don Was, still looking for his big break, was going through similar burn out.

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James Taylor, a master, lets Bonnie Raitt ‘steal the show every night’

Even the headliner at Rupp Arena knew who really ruled the evening.

on February 28, 2019 No comments
This was the first time Bonnie Raitt has ever played Rupp Arena, Lexington 2-27-2019 © Alex Slitz / aslitz@herald-leader.com

As he got down to business on Wednesday with a near-two hour, hits-laden show full of sublime and unavoidably sentimental tunes spanning over five decades, James Taylor remarked to the audience of 7,200 that one of the greatest pleasures of his nearly concluded tour was watching his co-billed pal Bonnie Raitt “steal the show every night.”

Count Rupp as one of those nights. Oh, nothing against Sweet Baby James. At age 70, he still exuded a good-natured folk-pop exuberance that serviced tunes as varied as the show opening reverie “Carolina in My Mind” and the tropically jovial “Mexico.”

His vocal work – with a few rare, reedy exceptions – has aged remarkably well, too, as did his way with an orchestrally inclined 11-member band that included, get this, a pair of champion Frank Zappa alums (drummer Chad Wackerman and trumpeter Walt Fowler.)

But the divine Ms. Raitt – who, amazingly, was making her Rupp debut –took this night home in her hip pocket.

Gallery (7)

© Alex Slitz / aslitz@herald-leader.com

At 69, her vocals revealed a regal glow, assimilating, as they have throughout her career, a balance of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ smarts. Similarly, her guitar work – a gorgeous, slide-savvy tone that ignited the set-opening “Unintended Consequence of Love” – would serve as rocket fuel throughout the concert.

The sheer scope of what Raitt packed into her hour-long performance was, frankly, astounding. It ran from a slow, swampy revamping of the INXS hit “Need You Tonight” and a solo acoustic blues reading of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” to a cool but decidedly torchy take on her own 1991 hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

But the showstopper was clearly “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine classic Raitt is largely responsible for introducing to the world (she recorded it in 1974, three years after Prine, but before many audiences were familiar with the song.) She gave it a solemn but emotive delivery draped with a kind of tasteful world-weariness that yielded a sense of scholarly humanity.

There was also an obvious level of camaraderie between Raitt and Taylor at the show. Taylor began the evening with an extended and heartfelt introduction of Raitt that nicely set the pace for the program’s overall charm that carried over into segments when the two artists sat in on each other’s sets at their conclusions – Taylor during Raitt’s career re-defining take on John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” and Raitt as a co-pilot for Taylor’s encore segment that blasted off with a jovial reading of “Johnny B. Goode.”

Again, don’t get the idea that Raitt’s triumph demeaned Taylor’s showing. His set offered a few nice setlist surprises early on – namely, 1970’s “Sunny Skies,” the autumnal title tune to 1974’s overlooked “Walking Man” album and the fatherly snapshot “First of May” (one of the only tunes in the set to venture beyond the ‘70s.)

But it was with two very familiar 1970 works, played back-to-back late in the show, that the emotive extremes of Taylor’s writing came into view.

The first, “Sweet Baby James,” remained a quiet anthem of child-like expression, a cowboy lullaby that unfolded with still-vital innocence. After that came “Fire and Rain,” Taylor’s career-making single – a curiosity, given how the song is a eulogy full of blunt sadness that the singer communicated at Rupp with conversational reserve. In the end, that just made the musical impact all the more devastating.


Source: © Copyright Lexington Herald Leader But wait, there's more!

James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt provide comfort and joy at TaxSlayer show

on February 23, 2019 No comments
JONATHAN TURNER jturner@qconline.com

MOLINE — If there are two more beautiful, humble, generous, and enduring souls in the pop music business than James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, I can’t think of any offhand.

The two staggeringly talented veterans — he’s 70 and she 69 — proved that Saturday night to a packed TaxSlayer Center, in their first joint concert ever in the Quad-Cities.

In these often dark, chaotic, depressing times, it was just so nice to luxuriate in the genuine goodness, comfort and joy of these legendary artists and their amazingly tight, virtuosic bands.

Both Raitt and Taylor, who have been friends and have performed together for years, seemed sincerely touched by the adulation bestowed on them by the Moline crowd. Nearly all available seats Saturday were filled, and it appeared odd that the upper deck’s back center section was curtained off; surely those could have been sold as well.

In her first appearance at the almost 26-year-old arena, Raitt offered an all-too brief set of just over an hour, blending her signature husky, alluring vocals with fine finger-picking on guitar. Her slow, slinky challenge, “Love Me Like a Man,” was followed by the fun, rocking release of “Something to Talk About.”

Like Taylor did later, Raitt gave grateful credit to songwriters of some hits, including the great Bonnie Hayes’ “Love Letter,” and the incomparable ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” co-written by former Bengals football player Mike Reid (talk about a gentle giant!). She delivered a soaring, impassioned and sorrowful performance.

Raitt also took advantage of Taylor and a big member of his crew on a couple standouts. Longtime backup vocalist Arnold McCuller joined her on “Nick of Time,” the title track of her 1989 Grammy winner, which he recorded in 2011. Can it be 30 years old already? That song certainly gains significance with the passing of time, and Raitt paid tribute to all the loved ones who have passed on, making it all the more precious.

She did a glorious mashup of Chaka Khan’s “You Got the Love” and her own “Love Sneakin’ Up on You.” James joined Bonnie just before intermission on a jubilant “Thing Called Love.”

While both sets were a nostalgia-drenched trip down memory lane, over a similar five-decade period of time, Taylor’s was even more so, with the help of massive multimedia. He brought a much bigger high-tech video presentation than I’ve ever seen before.

He last performed at the Moline arena in November 2014, and he performed with his son, Ben Taylor, at Davenport’s Adler Theatre in March 2011. He also played at what was then The Mark of the Quad Cities in July 1998.

Saturday’s show began with a mini-bio (like the fans don’t know?), a flurry of old videos and photos, including Taylor’s North Carolina childhood, and excerpts from interviews and songs.

It flowed seamlessly into his live opener, “Carolina in My Mind,” with his gorgeous quartet of backup singers. A feast of perfectly matched photos and video provided fitting backdrop for every song, and each time Taylor introduced a band member, the screen showed a few photos of them as a child or youth.

A lesser-known early song, “Sunny Skies” (from 1970) was accompanied by video of Taylor and his adorable pug dog. “There’s really nothing we won’t stoop to,” he joked afterward, one of many characteristically droll asides. Taylor related an unprintable joke about the first day of May that his Dad used to tell, as prelude to his irresistible samba-themed “First of May,” from one of my favorite albums of his, “Never Die Young” (1988).

This was also among several numbers that featured crack solos and layers from percussion, horns and flute. Some of the night’s best solos were in a favorite Taylor seemed to reluctantly haul out, “Steamroller” – which he noted doesn’t mean anything to him, unlike most of his songs, and that it takes longer to play it than it did to write it. The trumpet, Hammond B3 and electric guitar licks were awesome, and the number had its usual drawn-out, ecstatic finish.

The Carole King-Gerry Goffin hit “Up on the Roof” was delivered before dazzling black-and-white images and video of New York City’s skyline and landmarks.

Like Taylor must have done countless times, he relayed his breakthrough story of how he was discovered by the Beatles in 1968 and was the first artist signed to their Apple label, but he again conveyed it with the wide-eyed wonder and monumental importance it must have had when he lived it at age 20.

That tender ode, “Something in the Way She Moves,” he neglected to point out (as he sometimes does) gave George Harrison the “inspiration” to use that title as the first line for his Beatles hit, “Something.”

Taylor briefly told the story about the 1970 cowboy lullaby “Sweet Baby James,” written for his nephew. The sweet, perfect song remains magical, though the brother he wrote it for is tragically not around to relive it. Alex Taylor died of a heart attack in 1993 at 46.

James offered needed balm for another loss closer in time and place, as he dedicated the tremendously powerful “Shed a Little Light” to the victims of the recent shooting in Aurora, Ill. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., Taylor implores us remember the “ties between us – all men and women living on the Earth. Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. That we are bound together.”

That moving meditation seems all the more relevant and necessary today than it did when he wrote it in 1991. Through his classic, yearning ballads like “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” and exuberant party anthems like “Your Smiling Face” and “Mexico,” Taylor knows how to bring us together and unite us for a common, higher purpose.

He’s the ideal cultural ambassador, and over 50 years later, he still knows how to freshly, honestly deliver the goods, and the goodness. That light surely shined bright Saturday.


Source: © Copyright Moline Dispatch & Rock Island Argus But wait, there's more!