A hot breeze whooshes through the entrance of a Sausalito waterfront restaurant and in walks a figure silhouetted by the afternoon sun. With a mane of red hair and a yoga-fit form doing a tomboyish strut, it could only be Bonnie Raitt. All she’s lacking is a guitar to make the picture complete.
The owner of course recognizes the nine-time Grammy winner and asks if we’d like a bottle of Champagne. “What are we celebrating?” she asks cheerfully, before demurring and asking for a very un-rock star-like iced tea with lemonade. “Woo-hoo — party!” she laughs.
The truth is, the Bay Area’s favorite lady of rock is a party unto herself — bubbling with wit and energy and good humor, despite personal tragedies that have taken a toll in recent years.
“That’s too loud — isn’t that too loud?” she says of the pop music blaring on the sound system. Without waiting for a response, she gets up and approaches the manager, flashes a dazzling grin and suddenly we’re listening to considerably quieter Brazilian jazz. No one says no to Bonnie.
“I hate that rock ‘n’ roll stuff,” she jokes as she sits back down.
In fact, that’s what we’re here to celebrate — her 18th rock ‘n’ roll album (“Souls Alike,” in stores today) and a tour that will bring her sexy strut and famed slide guitar skills to Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on Nov. 16 and San Francisco’s Warfield Nov. 18. “We always do the one-two hit so people can either stand up and dance at the Warfield or sit in the more sedate venue.” Rather than dreading the oft-described rigors of the road, Raitt, now 55, welcomes the chance to get back onstage.
“Are you kidding? It’s my job!” she laughs in a voice as sweetly hoarse as Peppermint Patty’s. “And I love it. When you have an opening night in a new town and you get to show a whole new crowd that you’re even badder than you were before, it’s exciting. And it makes it worth putting up with the drawbacks of changing cities five days a week.”
She pauses and looks out at the water thoughtfully. “I have these meet-and-greets backstage for nonprofits. And I meet these people, and they tell me stories: Three generations say they’ve been coming to see me, and the 20-year-old says, ‘You’re one of the only people my mother and I agree on.’ Or maybe a young woman tells me, ‘I’m an activist because of you,’ or a guitar player. People ask, ‘Doesn’t it tire you to do that after shows?’ But in fact it energizes you on some level. I get great nourishment from the fans who bother to take the time to communicate with me.”
Raitt is enjoying a momentary lull before the album kick-off craziness starts. “We’re shooting three TV specials and recording songs for iTunes. And I did Dr. Phil, and it’s just music — I’m not being psychoanalyzed. He heard my song ‘I Will Not Be Broken’ on the radio and just fell in love with it. The next two weeks we’re doing rehearsals on a big sound stage. And Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder are coming in to do my AOL sessions — that’s one of the specials. And then four days later, Norah Jones, Keb’ Mo’ and Alison Krauss are my special guests on a VH1 special.”
She smiles broadly. “So why do I go on the road? Oh it’s hard, it’s so hard, to have people screaming and yelling and calling my name. As my nephews say, ‘This does not suck.’ “
One tour chore to be dealt with is finding bio-diesel tour buses — something the devoted environmentalist demands. It’s just one of many causes Raitt is committed to. “There’s a family of people who get together to do these benefits. We started with offshore drilling off Santa Barbara, with me and Jackson (Browne), Native American issues, toxics, trees, farmworkers clinics, women’s issues. Going back to the ’70s.”
It’s only natural that the die-hard Democrat would eventually migrate north from Los Angeles. Raitt now splits her time between the Hollywood home she’s had since 1973 and the Mill Valley home she adopted a decade and a half ago. “When I got sober, I got a place up here,” she says, “so I could wake up in the morning and all I’d have to do to be inspired was look outside.”
But in recent years, Raitt has spent a lot of time at bedsides. In 2001, her older brother became ill with brain cancer, which is now in remission. Then her mother, Marge Goddard, died at 84 from complications from Alzheimer’s, followed seven months later by the death of her father, the great Broadway star John Raitt, at age 88 earlier this year.
“It’s normal, at my age, for people to lose their parents. But it’s incredible when they go so close to each other. You wake up every day and wonder how they are, if they’re suffering … ” she drifts off, and collects herself. “The amazing thing is that it brings you right into the moment. You just have to think, ‘This morning I’m doing everything I can,’ and try not to get too bummed out.”
Not surprisingly, Raitt chose “I Will Not Be Broken” — a classic R&B anthem — to be the first single off “Souls Alike.”
“It’s for anyone who wants to stand up and not be pushed around anymore,” she says.
“Souls Alike” continues Raitt’s tradition of finding promising young songwriters whose work she loves and wants to expose to the masses. “I called it ‘Souls Alike’ because when you find these incredible songwriters it’s like you’ve known them all your life. Finding Maia Sharp, from whom I got three songs on this album, was like finding my soul sister.”
The album will no doubt do boffo sales, thanks to her legions of fans around the country. Although radio is a much tougher nut to crack these days for an artist in her 50s.
“Some radio stations are after a younger image,” she says, frowning. “It’s good to be on Capitol because they can distribute the heck out of me. But thank God for satellite radio and the Internet — otherwise people in the middle of the country wouldn’t know I have a record out. And there is not a station in L.A. currently playing my single.”
On the subject of women aging in showbiz, Raitt asks indignantly: “Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde … Who decides that you get less interesting as you get older?” She says women in music do have an easier time than film actresses, “up to a point. Everything is commercially motivated. A lot of women I know are getting sacked from record companies because you don’t have to pay younger people as much. Relative to Europe, where a woman at 50 is just getting good, women in this country are not appreciated when they age. But if you’re in the jazz or roots music, like I am, you can age more gracefully than if you’re a sex symbol or a pop artist.”
Dare I ask if the famously private Raitt, who split from her husband (actor Michael O’Keefe) years ago, is seeing someone? She pauses. “As a divorced woman, it’s hard to get out there. And, of course, many men don’t look at women their age. I find 75-year-old guys wink at me in restaurants because to them I am a younger woman.” She chuckles. “And you know with my politics — well, there are a lot of things that have to line up.”
Certainly, the Internet would not be an option for her. “Right, at some point I’d have to say, ‘By the way, I’m a famous rock personality and I’m never home. I hope you don’t mind.’ “
But, she adds, romance is not as important to women her age as living well in general. “I made a decision a while ago to make my personal life as satisfying as my love life. My mother said her best decade was her 50s — and man, she was burning a hole in life. I think that if you haven’t made some changes by the time you’re this age about what’s not working in your life — whether you hate your job or you’re drinking too much or you’re out of shape — you gotta find ways of handling it. Take up something that you really love.”
Having said that, she admits that she is seeing someone. “I’m actually seeing someone and having a great time — a really healing time. I could not have picked a better place to be and a better time — this is really the best time in my life. Well, except for who’s in the White House and my own personal loss. But I think I’ve rebounded pretty well.”
On that note, she picks up to go. Outside in the parking lot, her flaming hair catching the sun, she is called out to by a group of construction workers.
“Hey, keep making your music!” one yells.
“Thanks!” she laughs. “I plan to!”
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