If you survive initial rock and roll success, what follows is very much like growing up in public. To be sure, survive is a potent word in this context. So many musicians have gone to join the choir invisible it’s a wonder that there are enough left to form a band. Yet numerous artists who began careers almost half a century ago are not only still alive, but still working: recording, releasing albums, touring energetically, recuperating in detox, getting hip replacements. Plenty of artists born post-war are still booming out rock and roll for our superannuated enjoyment. And—dramatic pause—not all of them are male.
Coming of age in the sexist 70s as I did, I openly (and wincingly) confess that my first reaction on seeing the cover of the new Bonnie Raitt album was, ‘My, but she’s looking fabulous!’. Staring out from the cover of Dig In Deeper Bonnie looks, well, bonny. Now I’m not so naive to think that there might not have been various kinds of assistance available to the cover designer (or indeed, to the artist) but really, who cares? Ms Raitt turns 67 later in 2016 and if I look half that good at the same place in the race to decrepitude I’ll be right chuffed.
Much more important than cosmetic issues are, of course, musical ones. I thought it would be fun to give the first two Bonnie Raitt solo albums a spin before listening to the new one.
Following a time-honoured first-album tradition, the 1971 debut is self-titled. Keep it simple. That applies to the making of the album too, the songs being recorded live to four-track in a converted barn on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, USA. Like the cover photo of twenty-two year old Bonnie, relaxing on a rustic wooden bench in a dimly lit old-world room, there is a ‘roots’ feel to the album that brings out the blues influences in the songs. With titles by Tommy Johnson (Delta bluesman) and Sippie Wallace, and harmonica by Junior Wells, there is a genuine knowledge of—and respect for—America’s music heritage. Top this off with Bonnie’s fabulous voice and accomplished guitar playing and you have a very solid musical base. Highlights for me are ‘Finest lovin’ man’ and Wallace’s ‘Women be wise’. Bonnie Raitt was a strong debut, and holds up damn well today.
There is a clear rise in confidence on Raitt’s second album, Give It Up (1972). You can see it in the photo and hear it in the grooves. The voice is just that bit more commanding—even on ballads like ‘Love has no pride’—and the sound a little sharper, less rustic. There’s a stepping up in Bonnie’s song-writing too, with opening cut ‘Give it up or let me go’ a terrific example. A stomping barrel-house blues-infused demand for a little male fidelity, it even has a New Orleans brass solo. Elsewhere, there is a Chris Smither adaptation, ‘Love me like a man’—an album highlight—and a lovely cover of the Jackson Browne song ‘Under the falling sky’.
Listening to Give It Up again after many years, it is easy to admire the smoothness with which Bonnie Raitt blends blues, pop, and jazz influences. It is possible that this skill was also a commercial disadvantage, as blues purists who loved her voice and delivery were put off by the pop-ness of some of the material, while pop-rock fans found it a little too rootsy. Certainly, for this listener, I prefer the bluesy numbers like Barbara George’s ‘I know’. Still, listening today, both of these albums are solid and thoroughly enjoyable: the debut more Americana, the sophomore jazzier.
After a patchy run in the late seventies and early eighties, Bonnie Raitt went stratospherically overground around the time of her fortieth birthday. In 1989 her tenth studio album was released to great critical and punter acclaim. What followed could be described as a modest career going supernova. When she guested on John Lee Hooker’s Grammy Award-winning The Healer late in the same year, her new level of fame and success was ensured. (Her duet with John Lee was, for me, the highlight of that hugely popular but ultimately patchy album but the veteran bluesman. There is a live version of the glorious ‘I’m in the mood’ here. Watch it; it’ll make your day.)
After The Nick Of Time came two further successful blues-infused pop-rock albums, Luck Of The Draw (1991) and Longing In Their Hearts (1994). I caught Bonnie Raitt in Melbourne in 1992, three rows from the stage. It was a great show; Bonnie’s singing and slide playing were superb and the band was as tight as a gnat’s arse.
Naturally there was the mandatory live album (Road Tested, 1995) and then I kind of lost track of Ms Raitt for a couple of decades. Until a few weeks ago when I stumbled across Dig In Deep.
The music is a fresh and bright as the cover photo suggests. Beautifully produced by Raitt herself, the album opens— all sexy swagger and sinuous groove—with ‘Unintended consequence of love’, a grown-up song about re-invigorating a flagging relationship. It includes a line about finding a way ‘to resurrect our strut’. A dangerous phrase to offer critics in the first track, evoking visions of two-word reviews such as “Strut Deceased”, but phew! Bonnie delivers. The cover of INXS hit ‘Need you tonight’ might have been ghastly, but instead is rockin’ and bluesy and, for this listener, more enjoyable than the pop original.
Plaintive change song ‘I knew’ comes next, slowing the pace to a reflective cruise that continues for the next song too, before a rollicking Raitt original, ‘What you’re doin’ to me’, surging along like a second cousin of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, what you want me to do?’ but with more words. For not the first time, Mike Finnigan’s Hammond B3 adds both punch and soulful groove.
Other highlights are the jumping swamp boogooloo earth-gospel elation of ‘Shakin’ shakin’ shakes’ (Cesar Rosas and T Bone Burnett) and the wonderful highway song ‘Gypsy in me’ (Gordon Kennedy/Wayne Kirkpatrick). If there are any criticisms to be made of the album it’s the modern fault of being a wee bit too long (twelve songs, over 52 minutes) and deciding to finish with two ballads, the reflective ‘You’ve changed my mind’ and the resigned ‘The ones we couldn’t be’. But overall, Bonnie sings with the same committed voice as forty-five years ago. More gravelly and lived-in, sure, but true and honest as the years are long.
If you haven’t listened to Bonnie Raitt in a while, consider Dig In Deep. It might just resurrect your strut.