Hooboy I loves me some Bonnie Raitt. I love her singing, I love her slide guitar and I love her commitment to social justice, the environment and to great but under-recognized blues and R&B musicians (I’m embarrassed to point out, for example, that I had never heard of Charles Brown before he was the opening act and guest at a Bonnie Raitt concert I attended). I also dig her general aesthetic and I appreciate both her songwriting and her willingness to look far and wide for other songs appropriate to her sound.
So tomorrow night I get to go hear her perform. It occurred to me that I will by that point have seen her more often (over a 20+ year span) than any other big non-jazz act aside from the Grateful Dead, and a big part of that is the consistent quality of her output. So here we go, mining from among the many chestnuts:
1 ) “Silver Lining” from Silver Lining
I tend to be one of those grumpy old poots who says “hrumph, so-and-so was SO much better back in 1972.” And indeed, Bonnie was great then, but I’m equally (if differently) fond of the stuff she did 30 years later. This cover of a David Gray song in a sense covers many of the bases that make up her sound. Take a great song, add some slide guitar, some clever production and nice vocal harmonies and top it off with a passionate and soulful yet subtle delivery of the lyric. As far as I’m concerned she can work within that formula for as long as she wants, I think I have a pretty insatiable appetite.
2 ) “You Told Me Baby” from Give It Up
Speaking of 1972, Bonnie’s second album, was the first to feature her original songs. This is the hardest-rocking of the three, though it’s a particularly folksy type of rocking. Words escape me, but I find the singing and the groove on this one to be irresistible. And when I was 17 and would crank this while cruising down the highway to a rehearsal, I was pretty sure that she was talking to me when observing “I’ve been looking for a man like you.”
3 ) “Blender Blues” (live bootleg, 1972)
For old-school Bonn-i-philes, this song (a staple of her early/mid-70s live shows, I’m told) is the shining example of her “blues mama” phase. I remember WPLR playing a bootleg (now, of course, easy to find on Youtube) of Bonnie and her longtime bassist, Freebo, playing this song at a radio station. She eventually distanced herself from the “Blender Bonnie” persona, but the wickedness of the food-as-sex double-entendre is matched only by her sly delivery and authentic, soulful guitar work.
4 ) “No Business” from Luck of the Draw
There are a number of male singer-songwriters whose songs Bonnie has made her own, a list that includes John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery”), Paul Brady (“Luck of the Draw,” “Not the Only One”), Chris Smither (“Love You/Me Like A Man”), Jackson Browne (“Under the Falling Sky”) and Eric Kaz (“Love Has No Pride”). But perhaps the most fruitful of these relationships has been with one of my favorite singer-songwriters, John Hiatt. His great song “Thing Called Love” was the breakthrough song in Bonnie’s comeback in the late ‘80s, and his “Lover’s Will” provided an underrated classic on the underrated Fundamental album. I picked this one in large part because of the harmony vocals by Hiatt himself, but even without that, Bonnie’s gritty vocals and wicked slide guitar are at their authoritative best.
5 ) “My First Night Alone Without You” from Home Plate
One thing that Bonnie does like few in popular music is infuse depth and pain into mournful ballads without getting schmaltzy. One of her best known performances is “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (featuring great piano from Bruce Hornsby, btw) and there are numerous other classics in this vein, from “Love Has No Pride” to Nick of Time’s Herbie Hancock duet “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again.” If I had to pick one of her grief-stricken ballads, though, it’s this cover of a song popularized by Ray Charles. And you know what? (Sacrilege alert!!!) I think she may well out-do the original here.
6 ) “Bluebird” from Bonnie Raitt
There are lots of head-scratchers in the realm of pop music and commercial success, but did you know that Bonnie’s first album DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THE TOP 200 OF THE CHARTS? I guess it’s not shocking – she was a new artist, there are certainly no real “singles” here, and the music is hard to categorize. Is it blues? Heck yeah, if you’re listening to her and harpist Junior Wells beat “Walkin’ Blues” to a pulp. Or is it folk? Well, I guess it’s that too in places. I don’t know what term could encompass the whole record (bluesy folk-pop?) but, having to pick one song, I’ll take another surpasses-the-original track, an ebullient blues plus folk plus rock plus doo-wop cover of a Stephen Stills song first done by Buffalo Springfield.
7 ) “I Feel the Same” from Takin’ My Time
I mentioned Chris Smither above, but here is another example of Bonnie taking on one of his pieces. This track and the album in general represent an interesting transition, as she retains much of the bluesiness of her first two albums, but with a distinct increase in the L.A. studio slickness that would become increasingly prevalent. This is also the first time we hear electric slide guitar (as opposed to just acoustic bottleneck) on one of her recordings, though interestingly (and appropriately to this melding-of-worlds) it’s not played by Bonnie herself, but rather by Lowell George of Little Feat fame.
8 ) “Nick of Time” from Nick of Time
This is the title track of the album that first represented Bonnie’s commercial comeback in 1989 and then, after a surprising Grammy win for Album of the Year (which I cheered, watching on TV from the edge of my seat after her triumphant performance of “Thing Called Love”), the launching pad for success far beyond anything she experienced in her first 18 years as a recording artist. The album had plenty of raunchy blues, but this song in particular represented a different side of things, musing on, of all things, the emotions surrounding the aging process. I know some people who love her early work but can’t get into this; me, I think it’s beautiful and represents a natural evolution. I can even forgive the “FM piano” (the horrible digital piano sound that was ubiquitous in pop music of this era), though I suspect I’d have ranked this higher without it . . .
9 ) “Spit of Love” from Fundamental
This album marked the beginning of Bonnie’s relationship with the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, and thus an edgy departure from the polished sounds of Don Was, who produced the three albums that represented her commercial breakthrough. There are more original songs on this album than on most, and this one of my favorites among her compositions and typifies the raunchier quality in much of her work of this period.
10 ) “Right Down the Line” from Slipstream
I’ve alluded to this already, but Bonnie’s choices in covers are fascinating to me. Often she pays tribute to blues and R&B greats of yesteryear, whether Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sam and Dave or countless others. Other times she infuses depth into songs by obscure songwriters and/or artists not generally afforded much critical appreciation. On her mostly-overlooked 1986 album Nine Lives, for example, my two favorite songs are by the transcendently great reggae singer Toots Hibbert (“True Love Is Hard to Find”) and the schlock-tastic Bryan Adams (“No Way to Treat A Lady”). It feels like I should pick a deeper cut as opposed to the featured single from her excellent new album Slipstream, but this one stands out to me. And while we all, of course, love “Stuck in the Middle With You” and “Baker Street,” I’m still not sure that a Gerry Rafferty song, tinged with some reggae, is the most predictable choice for a soulful centerpiece of a rock/blues album . . . but then, we shouldn’t be too surprised by anything anymore