Bonnie’s blues rock

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With another Grammy in hand, blues-rock singer Bonnie Raitt will serve a great meal to music lovers this month, writes Subhadra Devan

“MY heart is in blues rock music... I just like the way blues-rock makes me feel,” says singer-songwriter-guitarist Bonnie Raitt, the only woman with a Fender guitar in her honour.

“The world has been captivated by African American music since the early 1920s. People like George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong catapulted the genre to everyone who has anything to do with the blues and jazz, and I’m right up there with my generation, listening to The Rolling Stones who educated us about our own (American) blues heritage.

“I also play folk music, electric blues and other genres but my heart is in blues rock, the way it makes you feel... it has everything from heartache to longing to erotic and angry.”

Bonnie, one of the few women blues rock vocalists and guitarists today, will be in Singapore on March 21-22 for the 4th Timbre Rock & Roots music festival at Fort Canning.

Speaking a few days before winning her 10th Grammy, this time for Best Americana Album for Slipstream, at the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Feb 10, Raitt says getting nominated “is the icing on the cake”.

“It’s a fantastic feeling, and I am so proud that the album Slipstream has been getting fantastic reviews,” she said.

Slipstream, is Bonnie’s 19th album but her first release under her own recording label, Redwing Records. The release has set her on an 85-city tour around the world, including Singapore followed by Australian cities.

“It’s exciting to have your own label. You must be really ready for a lot of work. My staff of just four women are prepared for this, and they handle all the social media work, as well as my political and social activism that I do, plus the overseas tour and promotions. It’s more work, but more satisfying because I have more control,” she said.

Slipstream, one of the top selling independent albums of 2012, saw Bonnie back in the recording studio seven years after her acclaimed Souls Alike. In those years, she went through some testing times including the deaths of her parents and her brother, according to Press reports.

Bonnie released her self-titled debut album in 1971, but young artistes including Adele, Katy Perry and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon have found appeal in her songs, consequently covering Bonnie’s 1991 heartbreak ballad, I Can’t Make You Love Me. Vernon also included Bonnie’s 1989 song Nick Of Time in his sophomore album.

“I am really thrilled that the younger artistes — Adele, Justin and Katy — have sung my songs. I have such admiration for Adele as a singer and writer,” said the Los Angles-born Bonnie who comes from a Quaker family steeped in the arts, music and activism. She got a Stella guitar as a Christmas present at the age of 8, setting her on her own creative journey.

As a Harvard-Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and African Studies, she immersed herself in the city’s cultural and political activities. She was also deeply involved with folk music and the blues, exploring these styles and other genres at coffeehouse gigs.

Bonnie left college to commit herself full-time to music, and shortly afterward found herself opening for giants of the blues music then including Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

She states in her website that “she learned first-hand lessons of life as well as invaluable techniques of performance”.

“I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids.” she said.

“I’d talk to them, about how they experienced racism, and how they came up in the US, at a time when there was a depression going on in the US, and segregation in the South.

“It was a window to a different world for me. I was a woman in my 20s, daughter of a Broadway singer in Los Angeles. Not many young women had that experience, the chance to learn from these African-American experiences, the blues music, the drinking, the racism they had to undergo. It was an incredible education.”

The rootsy, bluesy Slipstream showcases Bonnie’s interpretation and rearrangements of songs by some of her favourite songwriters including Randall Bramblett, Joe Henry, and Bob Dylan.

The covers include an amazing ballad, You Can’t Fail Me Now, written by Loudon Wainwright and producer Joe Henry, Gerry Rafferty’s 1977 hit, Right Down The Line and two Bob Dylan songs — Standing In The Doorway and Million Miles.

Slipstream also displays Bonnie’s slide guitar virtuosity and the talents of her longtime touring band.

The songwriters and musicians are a big, tight-knit community, she said. “I decided to put songs with different points of view and styles together. Songs not given attention they deserve, because the musicians didn’t get that record deal... So I gave the songs a second and third life, with my own style. Like Rafferty’s Right Down The Line, which already had a reggae feel to it. It was all done organically. It just happened. I like to rearrange the songs in my own style and key. I do it instinctively.”

In her website about the music on her album, she wrote: “I’m in the slipstream of all these styles of music. I’m so inspired and so proud to continue these traditions, whether it’s reggae or soul or blues. I’m in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I’m leaving one for those behind me. I’m holding up the traditions of the music that I love.”

She said she included Randall Bramblett’s Used To Rule The World and gave it an R&B groove, “because I wanted to play something topical since last year was an election year (for the US)”.

“To me, that song is about the Occupy movement. It’s about the kind of hubris America has had, as if there are no consequences,” she said in a Press report.

Bonnie co-founded Muse (Musicians United for Safe Energy), works for environmental protection and for the rights of women and Native Americans. Her social and political activism, she says, stems from her family.

“I was raised in a family of Quakers who were politically active and who believed in civil rights, in the peace movement because Quakers are pacifists. My family took me to the march in Washington when I was 13. (She is referring to the historic civil rights in Washington D.C. in 1963.)

“My first gigs were to raise money for the Vietnam War veterans and women’s health clinics (for reproductive freedom). The feminist movement started when I was just in college. Along with my beliefs, and taking part in anti-war movements like Ban The Bomb, and civil rights marches, it all went with the folk music, and blues from Woody Guthrie (best-known for the song, This Land Is Your Land), Peter Seeger (If I Had A Hammer, co-written with Lee Hays) and Bob Dylan — it wove through my life strongly along with social activism. I’ve been marrying music to my politics ever since.”

Her 42-year musical career has been built on her talents more than primarily her appearance. She chose a different route to make her mark, even with the reality talent shows abounding then.

“We had Star Search, Amateur Hour, Showtime At The Apollo. There’ve been talents shows since television and radio started. It’s an opportunity for many to shoot ahead if they have the talent. It’s a big, monied industry on network TV. You have to be prepared to have a backup plan. If you do win, just know that the fame might last a few years after that.” she said.

“It doesn’t substitute for the slow building of your career, the playing of many, many live gigs, and building your audience.”

The Singapore show will be Bonnie’s first gig in Southeast Asia. “Yes, I’m 63 and I’m smiling because I’ll be landing in Singapore instead of flying over it.

“I’ve been looking at travel shows on the television. I can’t wait to visit the street market, roam the back alleys and eat some Filipino cuisine. Growing up in LA, there was a lot of Filipino food.

“You know, I’m delighted that there are people in Southeast Asia who know who I am. I was really surprised, and excited, to get the invite to the festival (Timbre Rock & Roots 2013).”

She promises a wonderful one-hour show, although she’s used to playing two-hour concerts.

“It’s like planning a great meal. I’ll whet the appetite by opening with uptempo songs... then gently, once you know me, ease into the ballads, and then play a lot of blues. The songs will be from Nick Of Time (her Grammy-winning 1989 album) and Luck Of The Draw (1991 Grammy winner). There’ll be a lot of uptempo songs. You will be feel the tribal connection. I am so proud and happy to be part of this blues festival.”

 


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