By Paul Elie
Bonnie Raitt has dodged the crush of fame that did in the Eagles; she has beaten the devils that snared Warren Zevon, found the third act that eluded Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, tended to her vocal cords better than Joni Mitchell, escaped the undertow of the sixties that holds Crosby, Stills & Nash, and kept clear of the Rushmore-y eminence now granted Neil Young. At sixty-six, she’s the real survivor of the California rock scene of the seventies, and to see her perform, as I did, at the Beacon Theatre, the other night, is to see—to strange and powerful effect—an artist from the album-rock era fully intact. But I wasn’t at the Beacon on a nostalgia tour. I was there to hear Raitt play electric slide guitar—to hear her run a narrow glass tube up and down the neck of a Fender Stratocaster tuned to an open chord. If you ask me, Raitt is the greatest living slide player, and I didn’t want to miss a chance to hear a sound that has only a few masters.
She took the stage, and there it was: a blue-glass slide, flashing on the second finger of her left hand. The opening number was one I needed two verses to recognize as “Need You Tonight,” originally by INXS—a song I heard five hundred times in college bars in the eighties and not ten times since. It ought to have been cringe-inducing. But it wasn’t; it was now a Bonnie Raitt song, a sharp woman’s swagger over big guitar chords and a strong kick drum. And then she stepped out and put slide to strings, and the last traces of eighties synthesized glam were banished by the low snake moan of the electric slide guitar.
For Raitt, slide is a second voice, much like her first: tough, physical, subtle, and frankly emotional. It’s a voice cultivated somewhere off to the side of the place where male and female, solo and accompaniment, roots music and new sounds, are distinguished from each other. Raitt’s main guitar, a Stratocaster from the sixties, stripped of its factory finish, is now worn to approximately the same color and texture as her hair, and this contributes to the second-voice effect. Her slide solos are clusters of notes pulled out after the second verse, echoing and underscoring her vocals. At the Beacon, she played slide that way on a tremolo-drenched song from her new record; on a cover of “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” a Los Lobos party song about earthquakes; and on a reggaeish version of Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 radio hit “Right Down the Line.” And then a stool was brought out and she swapped the Stratocaster for a six-string acoustic guitar.
The fact that B. B. King once called Raitt the “best damn slide player working today” isn’t, in itself, reason to think of her as the greatest living slide guitarist. Ry Cooder is more versatile and innovative—the Yo-Yo Ma of slide, a world traveller with a bottleneck. David Lindley (he of the overdriven lap-steel solo on Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty”) has opened quarries of old-time music and brought new life to the Weissenborn, a hollow-necked six-string acoustic instrument designed for Hawaiian music. Ben Harper has linked the lap steel to heavy rock. Derek Trucks has stirred the ghost of Duane Allman during a thousand shows with the Allman Brothers and his Tedeschi Trucks Band, making the Beacon Theatre a temple of slide.