Bonnie visited her friend Richard Julian, musician and co-owner (with his wife, also a musician Rosita Kèss) of Bar LunÀtico in Brooklyn to hang out and also be interviewed for The New Yorker – August 2016
“I’ve never even been to Bed-Stuy before,” Bonnie Raitt said. She was at the deep end of Bar LunÀtico, which is owned by her friend Richard Julian, a singer and songwriter. A few years ago, Julian, amid the ongoing struggle of trying to make a living in the music business, decided to diversify, so he bought a building in Brooklyn, moved in upstairs with his wife and child, and turned the ground floor into a bar, with a stage crammed in one corner. Raitt was here to hang out, not to perform. She favors bigger venues, and has been successful and sensible enough in her affairs to have the luxury of forgoing diversification.
It was early evening, and there weren’t many people around. She had on black boots, black jeans, a faux-leather mesh shirt, and a necklace of brass skeleton keys. To go incognito, she’ll often not wear eye makeup and truss up her red hair under a hat, but on this night she felt no need to hide. She looked like Bonnie Raitt. She tasted her drink, a nonalcoholic craft cocktail, and said, “I might have to hit on myself later.”
“It’s really nice to be here and watch the daylight fade,” she said. On the road, she explained, she spends her late afternoons in windowless rooms and halls—sound check, dinner, prep, performance—and doesn’t get outside again until after midnight. “Small price to pay for the gig I have, but I really miss watching the day end and the night come on.”
When Raitt passes through New York, she tries to build in extra time. She likes to bike the loop around Central Park. She has tenuous roots here. Her early childhood was spent in Westchester County, while her father, John Raitt, held down the lead in “The Pajama Game” on Broadway. “I knew all the alternate parts of the shows he was in,” she said. “ ‘Carousel.’ ‘Oklahoma!’ It was really cool to hang out backstage when I was a kid and soak up all that warming up and all the half-naked people running around. He did twenty-five years of summer stock. He toured into his early eighties.”
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.
Bonnie Raitt had gone for a walk in the park — New York’s Central Park — on this spring day, the singer told her audience at the first of her two sold-out shows Friday (April 1) at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre. This Californian marveled at how New Yorkers responded to spring fever.
“We’ve still got a lot of juices flowing, no matter how many decades we’ve been on this earth,” said Raitt, 66, who then proved that fact in a generous, joyful, two-hour show for an adoring crowd of her generational peers, as well as younger fans.
On tour to promote her newly released album, Dig In Deep, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning 2012 set, Slipstream, Raitt was in magnificent form: confident, engaging and sexy, while singing and playing her bottleneck slide guitar with searing soulfulness.
Playing before a scrim designed to look like a wide-open sky, Raitt commanded the Beacon stage. Her version of the 1987 chart-topping INXS hit “Need You Tonight” opened the set. And Raitt relished the tight stops of her four-piece band as she playfully embraced the sexuality of the song: “There’s something about you / that makes me sweat.”
The show focused first on Raitt’s new repertoire, songs she had recorded in anticipation of hitting the road for this extended tour, like the blues-rocker “Gypsy in Me” and the political blast of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through.” Said Raitt: “Let’s get money the hell out of politics and put the crooks in jail.”
Yet Raitt rewarded longtime fans with a rich sample of songs from across her five-plus decades as one of America’s most beloved roots and blues singers: her reggae-inflected remake of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” the Willie Dixon/J.B. Lenoir blues classic “Round and Round,” a full-band workout on “Something to Talk About,” an exquisite acoustic “Angel From Montgomery.” and an emotional encore of “I Can’t Make You Love Me”—which brought a wry apology from Raitt:
“If we didn’t break each other’s hearts,” she quipped, “I wouldn’t have a gig.”
Here are 5 takeaways from Raitt’s return to New York.
It’s Not Just About the Music
A longtime environmentalist, Raitt used her version of of Los Lobos’ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” to remark that California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operates close to an earthquake fault, and to draw attention to volunteers in the theater lobby seeking to close New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant, 50 miles north of Manhattan. This Quaker-raised musician, who saves seats on her tours for supporters of the change-focused Guacamole Fund, also hosted volunteers for the musician aid organization Sweet Relief and a food drive by the hunger-fighting group RockCanRoll.
One of The Best Bands On the Road Today
“How about this band!” Raitt said. This veteran foursome drove her musical explorations wherever they led, from the sensual (“Woman Be Wise” from blues woman Sippie Wallace) to the sacred (“Hear Me Lord” from Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi) and back again. Bassist Hutch Hutchinson has laid the foundation for Raitt’s blues-rock since the early ’80s. Guitarist George Marinelli has been Raitt’s foil since 1993 and brought lovely mandolin to “Angel from Montgomery.” Drummer Ricky Fataar, with credits ranging from The Rutles to The Beach Boys, first played with Raitt on her 1982 Green Light album and has toured with her since 1990. On organ and vocals, Mike Finnigan (longtime keyboardist with Crosby, Stills & Nash) is the newcomer to this touring club, but he’s known Raitt since he played with Maria Muldaur in the early ’70s. His lead vocal on B.B. King’s “Don’t Answer the Door” was a highlight of the evening.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
“Dig in Deep” contains five songs written by Raitt, the largest number on one of the singer’s albums since Fundamental in 1998. But onstage she was generous with credit for writers she’s recently covered, including Bonnie Bishop and Pat McLaughlin. And a reminder of Raitt’s deep musical community came in her passing references to collaborators across the decades: Los Lobos, Chris Smither, Little Feat, Lowell George, Taj Mahal, Delbert McClinton and others. She’s still building that community, inviting the playful blues/R&B act The California Honeydrops to open these tour dates.
A Long Love Affair With New York
“Pretend it’s The Ritz around 1986,” said Raitt, as her band dug into a version of “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads, evoking a date she played three decades ago at the venue known today as Webster Hall. She made references throughout the evening to her long history in New York: singing at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in 1970 and at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park’s Wollman Rink, where she first performed in August 1971 (fifth on the bill behind Robert Klein, John Denver, Dion and Jackie Lomax). “I’ve got so many friends and other musicians out there, it’s a hairy night for me,” she said. Among those who got shout-outs: her brother, musician David Raitt; Afropop Worldwide host Sean Barlow, guitarist Bill Frisell, and Lake Street Dive frontwoman Rachael Price. No shout-out was needed for Susan Sarandon, watching from eighth row center.
Like Father, Like Daughter — Enduring
Raitt’s dad, Broadway star John Raitt, sat beside his daughter the night — Feb. 21, 1991 — she won her first four Grammy awards, including album of the year for her breakthrough album, Nick of Time. Raitt, who died in 2005, sang professionally late into his life. As the evening drew to a close, his daughter evoked his name, and the enduring careers of Tony Bennett and the late B.B. King, as she told her audience, late in the evening, of her greatest wish. “I hope,” she said, “we’ll be doing this for another 20 years.”
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