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Queen of the Blues
Bonnie Raitt still reigns supreme after four decades

on May 16, 2013 No comments
Special to The Post and Courier

The instinct to help people is ingrained in Bonnie Raitt’s DNA, likely somewhere near the gene that gives her the ability to play a mean blues guitar and sing like a soulful angel.
   Even before the release of her 1971 eponymous debut, Raitt’s career track was oriented toward service. A social relations and African studies major at Raddiffe College in Boston, Harvard’s sister school, Raitt began playing the slide guitar and singing the blues as an evening hobby.
   Fortunately for her legions of fans, Raitt found herself in the right place at the right time.
With the backing of a local blues promoter whom she befriended, Raitt began sitting in with greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace, a female blues great. She soon put her dreams of a service career in Africa aside, following her musical muse instead.
   Over the four decades since first establishing herself as a blues singer, Raitt has dedicated her life to music and activism, maintaining a strong voice in the antinuclear, environmental and human rights movements. In Charleston, she has worked closely with the Coastal Conservation League, raising as much as $80,000 through two performances in the 1990s to benefit the organization.
   “She is a dedicated environmentalist and a generous and gracious person,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, citing Raitt’s work to provide support for elderly blues musicians. “It is hard to imagine anyone giving back more to the musical community and the environment than she has.”
   From organizing concerts against nuclear power in the 1970s to fighting South African apartheid in the 1980s and her continued commitment to donate proceeds from every concert she performs to local charities in the region, Raitt has never lost sight of her ideals, leveraging her fame to help individuals and the planet at every step along the way.

‘Nick of Time’
   Now 63, Raitt, daughter of late Broadway musical star John Raitt, has cemented her legacy as one of the all-time greats in blues music. Rolling Stone includes her on both its lists of the top 100 singers and guitarists of all-time, thanks to her biting slide work on the guitar and her poignant lyrical delivery.
   Irish songwriter Danny Ellis first heard Raitt’s music in 1989, when she released the classic album “Nick of Time.”
   “My wife and I met around that time, and that was our go-to album when we were courting,” recalls Ellis, who opens Raitt’s concert on Friday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. “Bonnie has an expression to her voice that really takes a lyric to a whole ‘nother place. When she sings a song, the lyrics go home to where the writer meant for them to go.”
   Raitt’s ability to express herself and “get inside of a lyric when she sings” helped to inspire Ellis as he transformed himself from a pop and R&B songwriter into a singer writing personal songs with only a guitar to accompany him. In his own musical development, Ellis first emulated Dixieland jazz and the hit American bands of the ’70s, traveling with various groups around the European continent and to the United States.
   It wasn’t until he settled in Asheville, N.C., that Ellis came to terms with his difficult childhood. At 8, his mother handed him and his four siblings over to the care of the state. He was raised in an orphanage that doubled as a correctional school until he was 16, exposing him to “thieves, tinkers, bullies and blackguards.”
   In 2009, Ellis released “800 Voices,” a “devastatingly personal” album that traces his story growing up in the Irish orphanage. Ellis’ friend and fellow songwriter, David Wilcox, gave a copy of the disc to Nashville, Tenn., songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, who played it for Raitt during a vacation together in Malibu, Calif. Soon thereafter, Raitt reached out to Ellis in an email to let him know she was a fan and to invite him to her upcoming show in Asheville.
   “I was over the moon. You can imagine how that would impact you,” recalls Ellis. “When my wife and I first met her and told her we had courted to ‘Nick of Time,’ she was genuinely bowled over and touched. She’s a really down-to-earth, straight-talking person.”

“Bonnie has an expression to her voice that really takes a lyric to a whole ‘nother place. When she sings a song, the lyrics go home to where the writer meant for them to go.”

Danny Ellis

   After booking this week’s date in Charleston, Raitt again reached out to Ellis, inviting him to perform. The timing worked out nicely; Ellis released his newest album, “Rest Yourself,” this month, blending his folk songwriting with the natural Celtic influence that permeates all of his work.
   “When the Irish influence started to creep back into my music, it really felt like something was coming home,” said Ellis.

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Celebrating Songwriters at the Ryman

on May 15, 2012 No comments

by Lydia Hutchinson

Bonnie Raitt is the Fairy Godmother of songwriters, turning dreams into reality one song at a time. And last Saturday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium—where a city of hopeful and accomplished tunesmiths filled the pews of the Mother Church—her magical powers were on full display.

A week into the tour for her flawless new release, Slipstream, Bonnie brought it home to the people she has championed for over 40 years and 19 albums—all the songwriters she claims changed her life. But any writer will tell you the other side of that equation: When Bonnie chooses one of their songs it’s an unequaled validation of their work, and the trajectory of their life is forever changed.

After strolling onto the stage with her Fender strat slung across her chest, Bonnie sprinkled her funky, bluesy, soulful fairy dust all over the new batch of songs, never failing to give a shout-out to the writer before the first note was played. She tore into Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World,” then sent the album’s single, “Right Down the Line” up to the late, great Gerry Rafferty.  Hit songwriter “Big Al” Anderson, a cult icon from his NRBQ days, weaves in and out of Slipstream with his guitar-playing and songs co-written with Gary Nicholson (“Split Decision”), Bonnie Bramlett (“Ain’t Gonna Let You Go”) and newcomer Bonnie Bishop, to whom Raitt gave a shout-out before delivering the gorgeous “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To.”

Bob Dylan got a nod with “Million Miles” and “Standing in the Doorway” (“…That Bobby Dylan. Yeah, I think he’s gonna make somethin’ of himself.”), as did her ex-husband, Michael O’Keefe, who co-wrote “Marriage Made in Hollywood” with the great Paul Brady. The album’s co-producer, Joe Henry, contributed the bluesy ballad “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” written with Loudon Wainwright III, as well as the breathtaking closing track “God Only Knows.” Nashville’s Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick (of “Change the World” fame) along with Kelly Price contributed another album highlight, “Take My Love With You.”

Sharing the stage with her family of band mates (guitarist George Marinelli, bassist Hutch Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar and keyboardist Mike Finnegan), Raitt kept it loose, huddling with the guys on several occasions to mess with the set list (“Just talk amongst yourselves” she laughed.) She congratulated Marinelli’s son, Sam, who graduated from Vanderbilt the previous night and then launched into “Down to You,” a song she co-wrote with Marinelli and Bramblett. Afterward she passed the spotlight to Mike Finnegan and his B3 for a lesson in how to serve up R&B with a side of holy hot sauce on his rousing version of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got News for You.”


Bonnie Raitt – Right Down The Line (Official Music Video)

In addition to the new tunes, Bonnie delivered favorites like Bonnie Hayes’ “Have a Heart,” “Something to Talk About” (“I had a cassette of Shirley Eikhard’s in a box for a long time waiting to record this song.”), and “Angel From Montgomery” which she dedicated to John Prine and his long-time manager Al Bunetta, as well as to her late mother and grandmother in honor of Mother’s Day (“I can’t talk too much about them because I’ll get choked up”). Her delivery on that classic was absolutely stunning and earned her first of several standing ovations of the night.

The evening’s highlight came with her first encore: the Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin-penned “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Citing it as—along with “Angel From Montgomery”—the biggest gift of her career, she dedicated it to Reid who was in the audience with his son. It was a perfect few minutes, with Bonnie sitting on a stool bathed in lavender light, pitch perfect and hitting all the right notes. The audience was rapt and silent until she drew out the high notes on “and I will give up this fight,” making it all but impossible not to cheer her and this timeless song across the finish line.


Bonnie Raitt – I Can’t Make You Love Me – 34th Grammy Awards 1992

The night ended with a couple of blazing 12-bar blues shuffles after she called on old friend Rick Vito who hoisted himself onstage to grab a guitar and join her, followed by an impromptu Steve Winwood-penned “Can’t Find My Way Home” —the perfect choice for someone who had so clearly found her way home to the Nashville songwriting community and given it the gift of an unforgettable evening.

After the show Bonnie’s friends gathered upstairs for a quick visit and a few hugs. She happily greeted Songwriting Hall of Fame member Matraca Berg and her husband Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Irish vocalist Maura O’Connell, Pat McLaughlin, Gary Nicholson and Al Bunetta. Mike Reid, after talking about what a moment it was when Bonnie sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” stood with his arm around her and told her it was something he would never, ever get tired of.

Then Raitt saw newcomer Bonnie Bishop hanging back behind everyone else. With a big smile she walked over and hugged her as Bishop told her how much the evening meant, and that she cried throughout the performance of her song. The look on her face was the same one seen on every songwriter’s whose work has been validated by Raitt. Then she introduced Bishop to everyone around, making sure we knew her name—just as she had made sure we knew the names of Maia Sharpe, Liz Rose, Chris Smither, Stephen Bruton, Larry Jon McNally, Paul Brady, Richard Thompson and scores of other songwriters whose songs Raitt has given voice to over the years.

And just like that, Bonnie Raitt sprinkled a little more of her magic onto the life of another songwriter.

Source: © Copyright Performing Songwriter But wait, there's more!

Bonnie Raitt: Return of the Blues Baroness

on March 9, 2012 No comments

by Tessa Jeffers

While teaching herself to play acoustic guitar as a teenager in the late ’60s, Bonnie Raitt—now world-renowned for her sultry voice and bracing electric slide prowess— dreamt of leaving her native California and joining the Greenwich Village beatnik scene. As soon as she was old enough, she left her parents—Broadway star John Raitt and pianist Marjorie Haydock—behind to head east and plant her musical roots in the burgeoning folk activist movement.

From there, Raitt tapped into a wide array of influences, with a big turning point coming when she befriended influential blues promoter Dick Waterman while she was in college. Waterman gave her the opportunity to share stages with blues gods like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, which no doubt left an indelible impression on the blossoming slide player.

Bonnie Raitt bought her famous “Brownie” Strat for $120 in 1969 and has played it at every gig since. © Buzz Person

Despite such beginnings, Raitt’s road to superstardom was anything but easy. While a 1970 gig with McDowell led to a record deal with Warner Bros., she experienced only moderate commercial success with the label. Her first hit didn’t come until 1977’s “Runaway,” and she was eventually dropped in 1983. She struggled with addiction until Stevie Ray Vaughan’s own recovery in the mid-’80s prompted her to get clean. Not long afterward, Raitt released the album that changed everything. Released in1989, Nick of Time won her three of her nine Grammys to date and set her on a path toward her 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the process, Raitt went on to become the first woman to have a signature Fender—an offer she originally turned down because she was uneasy about putting her name on a product. (Ever the activist, Raitt used the profits to create the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project, providing guitars to underprivileged kids in more than 200 Boys & Girls Clubs of America.)

Slipstream, out this month on Raitt’s new Redwing Records label, is her first album in seven years—although she’s been far from dormant in the interim. Much of that time was spent on the road, including on a stint with Taj Mahal before her brother was diagnosed with a second brain tumor. She took care of him until his passing, and soon afterward one of her good friends passed away, prompting Raitt to take time off for the first time in more than a decade.

The incessant road warrior’s hiatus lasted only a year before things started pulling her back toward her creative muse. She ended up in the studio much sooner than originally planned after meeting with producer Joe Henry to see if their styles blended. What was originally supposed to be a couple-song jam turned into an entire album. “Halfway through the first song,” Raitt recalls, “we knew we had something very magical.”

Raitt says she can’t put into words exactly how she knows when a song is right, but she recently told Premier Guitar her approach always seems to have a way of illuminating her life. She also shared why the guitar is her vehicle of choice, how newer artists like Bon Iver inspire her as much as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and what her advice is for guitarists trying to find their voice.

You picked up your first guitar—a Stella acoustic—at age 8. What made you stick with it?
I grew up in a very musical household, with my mom playing piano all the time for my dad’s rehearsals. So there was a role model for me, with my dad singing these great Broadway scores. Him being a Broadway star was a great gift for us to be able to see what that world was like. And the message of playing music and getting paid for it— doing something that you not only love, but that doesn’t even seem like work—was not lost on me. I must’ve tucked it away and then remembered it when the opportunity came years and years later to play music for a gig.

You’ve said before that electric guitar burns inside of you. What still turns you on about the instrument?
It really sounds like a human voice. The electric guitar will sustain a note, especially a single note, much longer than an acoustic will. And then when you play slide—which is so much like a human voice—you can work the amplifier and the overdrive. Now I use a compressor when I play slide, and with that you can sustain a note as long as your emotions will hold. It’s like surfing— you can ride that wave of emotional intensity and taper it off and build it up, depending on how you work your volume knob. It’s really an exciting way to express yourself. So electric guitar, for me, has the raunch and the beauty that more openly reflects the range of emotions I want to get when I’m singing and playing. It’s much more expressive to me. And that’s what keeps me going back.

The solos on your new rendition of the Dylan tune “Standing in the Doorway” have that same lyrical quality— they sound like someone crying.
Yeah, and then to have pedal steel behind me. I rarely get to do that. Greg Leisz is one of my heroes, and to be playing with Bill Frisell and those guys was such an honor. One of the great things about slide guitar is that I found I could go to Cuba and play with musicians there, and then I went to Mali, Africa, where the blues was born, and within a day I was playing with those musicians—because it doesn’t matter whether you know all the chords if you know your way around with a slide. It’s such a monophonic instrument: You can sit in with the Chieftains on slide as well as you can Cuban and African music. When your own lungs literally run out of air, you can take the slide guitar and add that other voice.

Bonnie brings at least three of her signature Fender Strat prototypes on tour to accomodate the open slide tunings she uses on different songs. © Sioux Nessi

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