By Jeremy Miles
SHE has the natural blues of a bottleneck broad and the swagger and sway of a born rock ‘n’ roller but Bonnie Raitt is a hard act to categorise.
When the American singer-guitarist arrives in Bournemouth on Thursday mid way through a short UK tour she’s likely to perform everything from soulful ballads to acapella roots music as well as her trademark slide guitar and some funky heads-down boogie.
I say ‘likely’ because even Bonnie doesn’t know what she’s going to play. In a phone call from her home in Northern California she told me: “One of the great things about this tour is that there’s no album to promote so I have the freedom to be a wild card.
“I can play what I want: maybe a couple of covers, a little bit of blues and some stuff from my older catalogue, whatever I feel like on the night.”
There’s certainly no shortage of choice . At 54 Raitt has more than 30 years and 17 albums worth of material to choose from.
And unlike many other veterans of the music scene she can be rightly proud of it all.
For Bonnie Raitt really is a wild card in an industry that thrives on never taking a gamble. Nothing about her quite adds up but just about everything she does makes perfect sense.
A combination of talent, a feel for quality and a steadfast refusal to compromise have left her with a body of work that is seriously good - by anybody’s standards.
Not only does she produce great music, working down the years with people like John Lee Hooker, BB King, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Richard Thompson and many more, but she’s a committed social campaigner and political activist.
Brought up in Quaker household, the daughter of a Broadway stage star - her dad John Raitt made his name as the original male lead in Carousel – she found her voice musically and politically in the late sixties.
Already an accomplished guitar player, she enrolled as a Harvard/Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and minoring in African Studies and headed for Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a great move! She found herself amid a hotbed of student activism and able to land gigs on a coffee house blues circuit that brought her into direct contact with legends like Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. She literally learnt at the feet of the masters.
“I was pretty lucky,” she says. “ I actually taught myself a lot of blues on the guitar just before I had an opportunity to meet those guys.”
They were clearly impressed by the young white girl’s feel for wrong side of the tracks black music and Bonnie grabbed a unique opportunity to enjoy a rapid but hugely enjoyable learning curve. She spent every moment she could with these icons of the real blues world: watching people like Son House and Lightning Hopkins jamming together backstage, offering to chauffeur for Mississippi Fred McDowell and even baby sitting for Sippie Wallace.
“It was a gift! Not just watching them play and seeing how they interacted with people but getting to befriend them and hang out with them,” says Bonnie.
“I mean I’m the daughter of a Broadway singer but believe me the climate backstage is totally different when you’re hanging out with Muddy Waters than when you’re with John Raitt.”
However she cites her upbringing as a key element in her artistic and social development.
“Being raised as a Quaker had a tremendous influence on me in terms of my political activism and in terms of being humanitarian, altruistic and also being very interested in other cultures.”
Being in the right place at the right time played its part too, in both her career as a musician and her ongoing fight for right and justice. Over the years the name Bonnie Raitt has become synonymous with campaigns against everything from Apartheid and the US nuclear energy programme to the rights of women and Native Americans. It’s a never ending struggle. “I’m glad I lived through the sixties and seventies when there was still hope, but now here we are fighting a war again,” she says.
Her opposition to the war in Iraq is absolute and she is now busy battling to get Bush out of the White House. “I will do everything in my power to get this administration out,” she says.
Among her many concerns is the rapid globalisation of corporate interests . “The thing is that money talks no matter what country you are from and many of the games that are being played that are supposedly about national interests are really about economics.”
She feels that control of the media is a worrying issue too. “In The States the country is split down the middle. Republicans and Bush supporters are only listening to the stations that present that point of view while the rest of us are only listening to our side.
“That’s just so bad because if you don’t have an informed populace you don’t have a democracy. This is as threatening a time as I can remember. There are so many shenanigans and deals going on behind the scenes”
And as those with vested interests get their hooks into the entertainment industry she worries about old friends like John Hiatt and John Prine, outspoken musicians outside the mainstream whose beliefs and opinions may be at odds with those who increasingly monopolise the promotion of concerts.
“Where are these guys going to get to play?” she asks.
Even her own views can be subject to censorship. This, she says, is most often applied by using only selected soundbites or simply misquoting. On occasions she’s found herself completely blanked. “If I’m doing a concert to stop the mining that’s ripping up the entire state of Montana a publisher may simply not run anything at all about it .”
In general though , she says, the arts pages tend to be left to get on with it. “It’s strange. I think these people think ‘they’re just the arts pages’ and I seem to be able to say what I like.
She’s also a great fan of the internet which she describes as “a really useful way to muckrake and deliver the truth.”
Though Bonnie will undoubtedly use her current UK appearances as a platform to hit out at the fat-cats, warmongers and spin-meisters of this world her primary role remains to entertain.
She’ll be bringing her studio band - the same outfit who accompanied her on the brilliant Silver Lining album which was released to massive critical acclaim two years ago.
It features long-time Raitt stalwarts like guitarist George Marinelli, bassist James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and drummer Ricky Fataar as well as the more recent addition of English born New Orleans based keyboard wizard Jon Cleary. The same team will be in place for the next album which will be recorded late this year and released in 2005.
“I love playing with those guys,” says Bonnie. “They’re not only great musicians but they’re so versatile and that’s important to me.
It’s no good finding someone who can play great barrel house piano but can’t play Richard Thompson... these people can play anything.”
She admits that such talent - this was also the band who together with producers Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom managed to nail her extraordinary live sound in the studio – don’t come cheap.
But she reckons it’s a sound investment. As she observed herself money talks. Used wisely though you can make it sing.