By Eleni P. Austin
“I don’t ever think we’ll get back how we used to, no use tryin’ to measure the loss, we better start getting used to it, and damn the cost.” That’s Bonnie Raitt, trying to navigate the rocky shoals of grief and heartache in a (not so) Post-Covid world on Livin’ For The Ones” from her latest album, Just Like That….”
Even after a career that spans more than half a century, she remains ageless.
Born into a showbiz family, her mom, Marjorie, was a talented singer and pianist, her dad, John, was a Broadway legend who originated lead roles in hits like Carousel and The Pajama Game. Along with her brothers, David and Steven, Bonnie grew up in Los Angeles.
As a kid, she studied piano and easily picked up the guitar. Along with the usual suspects, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, she grew up loving Blues and Folk music. That affinity intensified when she began attending college at Radcliffe in the late ‘60s. It was there that she saw Blues idols like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace and Son House up close, in person.
Those legends became mentors and friends. Pretty soon, Bonnie began playing Boston Folk clubs. She ended up taking a sabbatical from school to pursue music full-time. She was something of an anomaly, a flame-haired Hollywood hippie girl who sang and played slide guitar like a Delta master. But that talent and tenacity netted her a deal with Warner Brothers Records.
Bonnie’s self-titled debut arrived in 1971. her sound, sharp synthesis of Blues, Folk, Country and good ol’ Rock & Roll, wowed fans and critics alike. It became the blueprint for her next six records. Disinclined to recycle old Blues standards, her albums typically featured a couple of originals, and some Blues, as well as deep cuts from contemporaries like Randy Newman, Jackson Browne and John Prine. Much like Linda Ronstadt, she ended up making these songs her own. Her music was hardly Top 40 material, but it found a forever home on FM and free-form radio.
Early in her career, she equated Blues authenticity with hard living; matching her idols and fellow musicians drink for drink, line for line, felt de rigueur, almost a rite of passage. To paraphrase The Doobie Brothers, what were once vices, became habits. By the mid ‘80s, her substance issues were out of control.
Just as worrisome, her career had plateaued. Warner Brothers shelved a recent album. Even as label-mate (and mega-star) Prince evinced an interest in producing her, the label chose to drop her. Soon enough, she was burning through her savings in order to stay on the road. Something had to give.
Finally, she had an epiphany of sorts. Hard partying wasn’t keeping her authentic, in fact, if she continued on her current path, she would probably end up a sloppy performer or dead. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Blues guitarist nonpareil, had recently embraced sobriety, and the lifestyle change hadn’t diminished his playing, in fact, it improved it. With that inspiration in mind, she found a program, began working her steps and put drinking and drugging in the rearview.
Almost immediately, the universe rewarded her. Signed to Capitol Records, she made her 10th album, Nick Of Time, with musician/producer Don Was behind the boards. Released in 1989, the record was a critical and commercial success. Initially, it peaked on the Billboard charts at #22, after the album won three Grammy Awards, it shot to #1. Hollywood couldn’t have conjured up a better comeback story.
For the rest of the ‘90s, Bonnie could do no wrong. Her next three albums, 1991’s Luck Of The Draw, 1994’s Longing In Their Hearts and 1998’s Fundamental continued the tandem tradition of commercial success and critical acclaim. She racked up a slew of Grammy nominations, winning five. Her hot streak carried over into the 21st century with 2002’s Silver Lining and 2005’s Souls Alike.
Sadly, she suffered some loss between 2005 and 2009. Both of her parents died within a year of each other. Not only did cancer claim the life of her beloved brother, Steven, but also one of her best pals, musician Stephen Bruton. Gutted, she decided to take some time off.
40 years earlier, she’d taken a sabbatical that allowed her to forsake academics to concentrate on music. This time out, she was content to listen to other people’s music and just take it easy. Back in the studio by 2012, she recorded Slipstream, co-producing the album with musician/producer Joe Henry.
Released that same year, it was the inaugural recording for Redwing, the label she founded once her deal with Capitol lapsed. Debuting at #6 on the Blues chart, not only did it become the best-selling Blues record of 2012, it earned her a 10th Grammy win.
Four years later, she was back with Dig In Deep. At age 66, she confirmed that she could still deliver an album rife with emotional complexity, nuanced melodies and stinging guitar work. Bonnie was putting the sex back in sexagenarian. Now, she returns with her 18th studio album, Just Like That…. The record crackles to life with “Made Up Mind” Flick-of-the-wrist slide guitar riffs swagger atop slinky Fender Rhodes, vroom-y bass lines, vamping Hammond B3 and an insistent backbeat. Lyrics chronicle the dissolution of a relationship; “There ain’t no rhyme, just wasted time, moonlight spotlight shining down on a made up mind and a love gone wrong, there ain’t no rhyme.” The sugar-rush chorus; “The quiet behind a slamming door, the break of a heart that won’t break no more, get-away wheels in a straight line, serenade of a made up mind,” share’s some musical DNA with Sting’s urgent ’93 hit, “If Ever I Lose My Faith In You.” Scorching electric riffs and percolating B3 execute a playful pas de deux between each verse, ceding the spotlight to Bonnie’s slide guitar on the break.
Bonnie has never been a prolific songwriter herself, in fact, she has always exhibited an uncanny knack for selecting songs by unfamiliar (Eric Kaz, Libby Titus, Bonnie Hayes, Paul Brady) and celebrated (Jackson Browne, John Prine, John Hiatt) songwriters, practically taking ownership of their songs. So, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that she has written the lion’s share of songs here.
The title-track seems to rise up out of the mist, a wash of Bluesy back porch guitars, slow-cooked Hammond B3, downcast bass, all wed to a tentative rhythm. Bonnie easily slips into the skin of a bereft mother whose beloved son never reached his ‘20s. She quietly notes nothing can assuage the pain; “And just like that, your life can change, if I hadn’t looked away, my boy might still be with me now, he’d be 25 today/No knife can take away the stain, no drink can drown regret, they say Jesus brings you peace and grace, well, he ain’t found me yet.” But a stranger manages to alter her perspective when he reveals the reason for his visit; “I’ve spent years just trying to find you, so I could finally let you know, it was your son’s heart that saved me, and a life you gave us both.” Bonnie’s threadbare, raspy “la-la-la’s” coast above braided guitars and warm B3 fills and some wisdom emerges; “And just like that, your life can change, look what the angels send, I lay my head upon his chest, and I was with my boy again, I spent so long in the darkness, never thought the night would end, but somehow grace has found me, and I had to let him in.” Stinging electric riffs usher the song to a close.
“Waitin’ For You To Blow” is up-close and personal. As a rollicking backbeat connects with scuttling keys, darting bass and funky electric guitar, lyrics address the nature of addiction, from the addiction’s viewpoint. Like the devil on her shoulder, it gets its say; “I got her where she is today, but do I get respect? She claims she’s so above it now, keeps all that mess in check/Recovery’s a fickle beast, better stick to what you know, cause I’m always ridin’ shotgun baby, just waitin’ for you to blow.” Famously sober for more than 30 years, Bonnie understands that temptation never completely recedes. On the break, feathery keys and jittery guitars mirror the wicked and seductive allure. Thankfully, she has learned to ignore that voice in her head.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Livin’ For The Ones,” co-written with George Marinelli, is a fiery elegy to the people she’s lost. Hard-charging guitars ride roughshod over thrumming bass lines, polychromatic keys and a stuttery beat. Insistent and slightly Stonesy, the arrangement serves as an antidote to the lethargy and malaise that has her in its grip; “I can barely raise my head off the pillow, some days I never get out of bed, I started out with the best of intentions and then shuck it instead…. go ahead and ask me how I make it through…I’m livin’ for the ones who didn’t make it, cut down through no fault of their own, just keep ‘em in mind, all the chances denied, if you ever start to bitch and moan.” Bonnie rips an incendiary slide solo on the break that’s bookended by plinkity piano and a twin guitar attack.
In a record packed with superlative songs, the best tracks stack, back-to-back. “Blame It On Me” is a Bluesy lament powered by churchy Hammond B3, splayed guitars, doleful bass and a tick-tock rhythm. Bonnie’s torchy vocals are suffused with longing, regret and a hint of noblesse oblige as she takes the fall for an unraveling relationship; “Blame it on me, hold up my faults for all to see, truth is love’s first casualty, blame it on me.” The catch in her voice, the ache in her slide solo can’t camouflage the confluence of events that are the real culprit; “Blame it on time, the fugitive, the vagabond, the perfect crime, poured like sand through your hands and mine, blame it on time.”
Originally, “Love So Strong” was supposed to be a duet between Bonnie and legendary Reggae great, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert. Sadly, he succumbed to Covid in late 2020. So, Bonnie goes it alone. Buoyed by a surfeit of carnival keys-Hammond B3, Wurlitzer and clavinet- sparkly guitars, akimbo percussion, tensile bass and a rock steady reggae riddim, she remains resolute; “I said my love is so strong. and my mind is unchangeable, take a look at my face, you will see that my future’s still bright.” On the break, she unleashes a keening slide solo that folds into a raucous Junkanoo groove.
Finally, “Here Comes Love” opens with a walking bass line, frisky keys, slipstitch guitars and a tumble-down beat. Taking a page from Nina Simone’s book, Bonnie is yearning for a little sugar in her bowl, her come hither vocals convey a flirty sensuality as she entices a reluctant beau; “Ooh, you want to jump off that train and stay a a while in town, but don’t you know long as the world keeps turnin’ love is comin’ ‘round, it’s comin’ around. The arrangement is spicy gumbo, equal parts lilting Latin Jazz and Peacock-y Jockomo Fina A Na Nae, as whiplash guitar riffs lattice fluttery electric piano and slippery Hammond B3 notes.
Other interesting cuts include the hypnotic groover, “Something’s Got A Hold Of My Heart,” and the propulsive, gut-bucket Blues of “When We Say Goodbye.” The album closes with another Bonnie original, the magnificent slice of life, Down The Hall. The instrumentation is pared down to lush acoustic guitar and subdued Hammond B3, the opening chord changes echo fleet and filigreed flavor of The Beatles’ classic, Blackbird. Lyrics take their inspiration from a New York Times piece about a prison hospice that really stuck with Bonnie. A poignant study on humanity and simple acts of kindness, it ends with this powerful declaration; “I don’t know about religion, I only know what I see, and in the end, when I hold their hand, it’s both of us set free.”
Bonnie produced the record herself, and it features her longtime backing band, bassist James “Hutch” Hutcherson, drummer Ricky Fataar, guitarist Kenny Greenberg and Glenn Patscha on all manner of keys, including Rhodes piano, Hammond B3, clavinet, electric piano, Wurlitzer and Nord. Special guests include Big Easy legend John Cleary on electric piano, percussion and vocals, as well as the late Mike Finnigan on Hammond B3. Mike had been a member of Bonnie’s band until he lost his battle with liver cancer in 2021. Along with Mike, the album (and the song “Livin’ For The Ones”), is dedicated to friends and family Bonnie lost due to Covid and otherwise: John Prine, Toots Hibbert, Mike Finnigan, Ed Cherney, Marty Grebb, Art Neville, Sweet Pea Atkinson, David Lasley, Paul Barrere, Dr. John, Willie Murphy, Oliver Mtukudzi, Howell Begle and her nephew, Miles Raitt.
As much as she remains ageless, the music on Just Like This manages the neat trick of being both timely and timeless. A recent recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and Billboard’s Icon Award, she remains humble. Not content to rest on her laurels, the minute it became (relatively) safe, she was back out on the road. Nearly three quarters of a century in, Bonnie is just hitting her prime.