by Pam Brown
Bonnie Raitt and Spider John Koerner – Brown University, Alumnae Hall
Alumnae Hall lost some of its forbidding austerity when two young blues artists from Massachusetts, Bonnie Raitt and Spider John Koerner performed there Friday night.
The cold, New England formality of the building was countered by a music whose roots lie in small, Southern churches, Appalachian back porches and railway depots, a music that is born of raw feelings and basic human experiences. Although both singers spoke of the difference between their usual barroom engagements and the Brown concert, their music transcended the setting, evoking a sense of down-home warmth and simplicity.
Spider John, who appeared first, came across as almost too relaxed. His style was unimposing, from his fresh-scrubbed looks and quiet patter, to his unvaried, standard guitar work. According to Koerner, his guitar refuses to play at any other speed, but I find that cute story a weak excuse not to expand upon his competent but only standard musicianship. He did sing some nice, twangy “goin’ down the road” type of songs, and occasionly broke into fine harmonica playing. Unfortunately, Koerner doesn’t get past the merely agreeable.
Bonnie Raitt. on the other hand, had the audience completely under her spell from the moment she walked out on stage arrayed from head to toe in purple. She too, is an unimposing, totally calm kind of person, but because her music had great emotional presence and a tremendous range of style, her performance never degenerated into dullness. Blues music is a somewhat limited form to work within, and its power comes more from its emotional urgency and universality than from great technical innovation or a tour de force show of skill. Although Bonnie is an excellent guitarist, both on standard steel-string and bottleneck guitar, she never lets her virtuosity get in the way of the overall unity of each song. Opening with a Sippie Wallace tune, which included some exciting picking on the breaks, Bonnie went on to do a wailing version of Steve Stills’ (“an old bluesman who’s really paid his dues”) ’’Bluebird’’. Her voice is strong and rich and curls beautifully around the notes. Although not without the earthy insight of Janis Joplin, her style more resembles that of Tracy Nelson, with the same qualities of purity and power.
The rest of Bonnie’s long set included practically every type of blues song. Many were about love–from a plea for honesty and responsibility to a quiet John Koerner tune, “I Ain’t Blue”, to a very mellow version of “Since I Fell For You”. The loving slid easily into the sexual, and in this genre Bonnie really got it on, ranging from another Sippie Wallace tune on not advertising your man’s assets, to a Mississippi John Hurt piece proclaiming the free woman, to an outrageous number of her own called “Let me be your blender, baby”. The set also included a great bottleneck guitar rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and another show of virtuosity on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. Bonnie Raitt plays the blues like she means it, and she pulled a very basic emotional identification from her audience Friday night. More power to her, and others like her, for helping us get back to ourselves.