Bonnie Raitt’s 66th birthday was yesterday. The singer-guitarist (she qualifies as bandleader, songwriter and activist, too) was born in Burbank, CA on November 8, 1949, the daughter of the late Broadway actor John Raitt, whose major credits included Oklahoma, The Pajama Game, and Carousel. Wikipedia’s entry on Papa John (“He set the standard for virile, handsome, strong-voiced leading men during the golden age of the Broadway musical”) gives a likely hint as to why Bonnie was so at home hanging with and learning from many of the hyper-masculine leading men of blues in the sixties.
Her background (WASP, upstate New York Quaker summer camp and boarding school, Radcliffe) suggested a quite different direction in life than female blues-rock icon, and that’s an understatement, for there were very few white women immersing themselves in blues culture in the sixties, and even fewer actual musicians among them to serve as role models.
Bonnie’s immediate predecessors included Nancy Harrow, Judy Roderick, Maria Muldaur, and Tracy Nelson, each of whom tended toward the Classic blues of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Chippie Hill; it was Raitt alone who broke new ground in developing an identity and mastery of guitar-driven Delta blues.
Bonnie’s early models were Odetta and Joan Baez. In Baby Let Me Follow You Down, The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years (which I quote throughout this piece), she said she “learned to play guitar” off an Odetta album that she first heard at Camp Regis in 1959. “Then I heard Joan Baez and fell in love. I wanted to pierce my ears and grow thin cheekbones.” Next came the Elektra album Blues at Newport ’63. There she heard Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, and John Hammond, Jr. It drew her in and made her eager to attend the following summer’s Newport Folk Festival, but at 15, her elders deemed her “too young.” From the album, John Hurt’s “Candy Man” was especially appealing. “When I heard that, I went, ‘I don’t know what that stuff is, but this guy is so cute, his voice is so cute, and his guitar is so pretty.’ I just had to learn about it.”
But with her trademark honesty, she faced the sometimes intrusive mechanics of such a production by building them right into her act. She piped the talkback between the recording truck and herself into the house sound system. She stopped songs midway and started over, even doing second takes of performances. Serving as emcee for the evening was her record producer, Don Was.
“I’ve waited 25 years to make a live album,” Raitt told the crowd. “I thought it would be a good idea before menopause.”
The capacity crowd clearly didn’t mind. They applauded the second version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” with, if possible, even greater enthusiasm than the first. They sat pin-drop still for two consecutive takes of “My Opening Farewell,” a song she and Browne sang together, from his first album.
It was an extraordinary evening. Raitt ranged across the full breadth of her remarkable gifts — from driving, slashing bottleneck guitar rock to deep country blues, buoyant pop and aching, plaintive ballads — liberally sprinkled with marvelous matchups with special guests.
She and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds romped through his “I Believe I’m in Love,” trading walloping instrumental verses on harmonica and bottleneck. Rhythm and blues greats Charles Brown and Ruth Brown, who served as the evening’s opening acts, returned for a three-way frolic early on, with Wilson whiffing away behind them on his harmonica.
Hornsby was greeted by a standing ovation when he joined Raitt to play electric piano on “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Adams and Raitt turned up the steam on a jolting “Rock Steady,” a song Adams wrote for her that will surely be one of the highlights of the album and PBS special.
Raitt herself supplied more than an album’s worth of goose- bump moments. Her set-closing version of the Talking Heads‘ “Burning Down the House” brought that surefire rouser into the house of rhythm and blues. Her performance of Richard Thompson‘s “Dimming of the Day” — “Of all the songs I’ve recorded,” she said, “I think this is my favorite” — burst into an explosion of pain and longing as she reached deep inside for the final chorus.
But that, ultimately, is what makes Raitt so special. She crawls inside these songs and lives them each time she sings. The heart of each piece is so plainly evident, so palpably exposed.
Furthermore, after essentially spending the past eight years on the road in the wake of her “Nick of Time” breakthrough, Raitt has drilled her exceptional band into a combat-tested cadre, schooled to close-order precision in her style. This flexible unit moved fluidly from supple, spare folk accompaniment to loud, raucous rock. Guitarist George Marinelli shifted from background to foreground at the drop of a pick. Bassist Hutch Hutchinson pulled out a hollow- body model to stitch limber, loping lines into the densely woven fabric Raitt laid down on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s delta blues, “Sweet Home Kokomo.”
After spending more than 20 years beating the bushes, plugging away at nightclubs and recording worthy album after album that few noticed, Raitt has earned her stardom. Maybe that explains why nobody wears the crown with more grace, dignity and ease.
She explained to the audience why she chose the Bay Area to record this album and TV special: “I wanted to feel comfortable in front of people who are rhythm and blues fans,” she said, “who appreciate a good ballad and who know I’m not a country act.”
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Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2, the anticipated new John Prine tribute record from Oh Boy Records, is out today. Stream/purchase HERE.
Created as a celebration of Prine’s life and career, the album features new renditions of some of Prine’s most beloved songs performed by Brandi Carlile (“I Remember Everything”), Tyler Childers (“Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You”), Iris DeMent (“One Red Rose”), Emmylou Harris (“Hello In There”), Jason Isbell (“Souvenirs”), Valerie June (“Summer’s End”), Margo Price (“Sweet Revenge”), Bonnie Raitt (“Angel From Montgomery”), Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (“Pretty Good”), Amanda Shires (“Saddle in the Rain”), Sturgill Simpson(“Paradise”) and John Paul White (“Sam Stone”). Proceeds from the album will benefit twelve different non-profit organizations, one selected by each of the featured artists.
Bonnie Raitt - Write Me a Few of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues
60 years anniversary celebration of Arhoolie
December 10, 2020
Arhoolie Foundation celebrates it's 60th anniversary (1960-2020) with an online broadcast.
Bonnie Raitt - Shadow of Doubt
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
October 3, 2020
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass celebrates it's 20th anniversary with an online broadcast titled “Let The Music Play On”.
Bonnie Raitt & Boz Scaggs - You Don't Know Like I Know
Farm Aid 2020 On the Road
Sam & Dave classic written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
Sheryl Crow & Bonnie Raitt - Everything Is Broken
[Eric Clapton’s Crossroads 2019]
Eric Clapton, one of the world’s pre-eminent blues/rock guitarists, once again summoned an all-star team of six-string heroes for his fifth Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2019. Held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, the two-day concert event raised funds for the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, the chemical dependency treatment and education facility that Clapton founded in 1998.
'A Tribute To Mose Allison'
Celebrates The Music Of An Exciting Jazz Master
Raitt contributed to a new album, If You're Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison, which celebrates the late singer and pianist, who famously blended the rough-edged blues of the Mississippi Delta with the 1950s jazz of New York City.
NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bonnie Raitt about her friendship with the Mose Allison. They're also joined by Amy Allison — his daughter, who executive produced the album — about selecting an unexpected list of artists to contribute songs to the album.
Recorded on tour June 3, 2017 - Centennial Hall, London - Ontario Canada