Generally speaking, Bonnie Raitt’s audience can be divided into two camps – the Original Bonnie-Maniacs and the Bonnie-Come-Latelies – and the two don’t exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to choosing their favorite Bonnie Era.
But on Raitt’s last couple of records, including her latest, Souls Alike, she’s found a sound that both camps can probably live with.
The Bonnie-Maniacs are the roots-rock heads who got on the bus in the early 1970s, when Raitt’s lascivious slide guitar and sultry vocals made her one of the darlings of that era’s blues (and rocking-blues) revival. Back then, Raitt lent her considerable talents to rootsy covers of songs by such blues giants as Robert Johnson, Sippie Wallace and Mississippi Fred McDowell – and to equally organic-sounding covers of contemporary writers like John Prine, Randy Newman, Mose Allison and Jackson Browne.
The Bonnie-Come-Latelies, meanwhile, are the more casual, mainstream listeners who never heard of Raitt until nearly 20 years later, when she snagged an armload of Grammys in ‘90 for Nick of Time, a much more pop-conscious album that expanded her audience by a factor of about 100 – if not 1000.
Many Bonnie-Maniacs, however (including this critic), were put off by the sleeker, more radio-friendly – some might even say sterile – sounds that Raitt pursued in the ‘90s following Nick of Time‘s breakout success. Indeed, the treacly keyboards and slinky arrangements of that era seemed to flatten Raitt’s earthier instincts and rough-hewn sensuality.
At some point, Raitt, who comes to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Tuesday, evidently agreed with that assessment. Because in 1998, on her Fundamental CD, Raitt made a left turn when she tapped Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake to produce. That’s the production duo that’s been leaving their signature sonic imprint on Los Lobos discs since ‘92 with their wobbly grooves and clankety, found-object percussion. Fundamental crackled with similarly woozy beats and production sounds.
Those treatments seemed to revive Raitt’s creativity, because Fundamental was her most energetic album in almost 20 years – at least since Green Light in 1982. It also marked a semi-return to her rootsier beginnings, even if it was an avant-roots move. At the time, Raitt made a controversial remark that revealed her own ambivalence about the artistic price she paid for her mainstream success. Referring to the music on Fundamental, she told the New York Times that “the secretarial pool that likes the more middle-of-the-road songs may not get it, but they can always go back and listen to Nick of Time.”
Which brings us back to her latest disc, Souls Alike. Released in September, the record reunites Raitt with Blake. Froom and Blake also co-produced Silver Lining, Raitt’s ‘02 follow-up to Fundamental – but that disc added some of Raitt’s pop-friendly melodies back into the mix, and Souls Alike strikes the same balance. Although Froom didn’t lend a hand on the production this time out, he plays many of the same out-of-left-field instruments on Souls Alike that added exotic textures to Fundamental, such as the Minimoog, Orchestron and Dolceola – as well as more conventional key instruments like Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes.
Raitt is listed as the producer of the record, but Blake is the co-producer, and his presence is obviously felt. Many of the tracks clank to the same kinds of off-kilter grooves that kick-started Fundamental, and Blake’s affinity for tension-producing sonic clutter again keeps Raitt from falling into the formulaic gloss that marred many of her early-to-mid-‘90s discs. Overall, these treatments also provide a much more fitting and atmospheric framework for Raitt’s signature slide guitar.
Raitt is a singer/musician, not a songwriter (at least not for the most part), and on many discs she typically finds herself drawn to a particular writer. This time out it’s Maia Sharp, who co-wrote three tunes.
“Bonnie Raitt definitely has a ‘sound,’ but I think she has deftly avoided clichés despite her 30-plus years in the music business,” says Kim Clark, morning host and producer at WNCW. “The phenomenal success of Nick of Time established a formula for her subsequent recordings that served her well, but she moves creatively within its boundaries from release to release.
“On Souls Alike, with Bonnie acting as producer for the first time, she didn’t choose to abandon the tried-and-true, but she has allowed the songs a little extra breathing room,” Clark adds. “The results are nicely edgier than usual.
“I think one reason for Bonnie’s popularity, in addition to her immense talent, is that she sounds like she is comfortable in her own skin, and her slide guitar seems to be an extension of her lived-in persona. She’s been to the brink – and come back pleasantly triumphant.”
[Writer and music critic Kevin Ransom first wrote about Bonnie Raitt in 1991.]
Bonnie Raitt plays Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Tuesday, March 7. 8 p.m. $49.50. 259-5544.