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(Redwing 1 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/18/2012)
While jazz, blues and classical performers tend to improve with age, the situation is highly variable as rock musicians put on the years. Some remain creative and vital, while others, perhaps those who lived like rock stars in their earlier days, have not aged particularly well musically, or they just go on playing their old hits to their aging fans.
Bonnie Raitt is definitely not one of the latter. The member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has just released what could be one of best albums of her 40-year recording career, called Slipstream.
The daughter of Broadway star John Raitt and a musician mother, Bonnie Raitt got into music at an early age, attending the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 at the age of 14, and got seriously into folk music and the blues while in college at Harvard and Radcliffe. After she began performing full-time, she often shared the stage with some of the blues legends of the time such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace and John Lee Hooker, when they played to college audiences in the Boston area. She considers herself fortunate to have been able to learn first-hand from such performers. The blues was an important part of her debut album in 1971, and while she has found wide popular audience over the course the years, and some multi-platinum-selling hits, the blues were never far from her musical core. In addition to recording fairly prolifically, she has also been a guest on some 100 albums by others, and has long been an activist for various causes from No Nukes concerts in the 1980s to working with the Boys and Girls Clubs to get encourage musical development among underprivileged children.
The story of her new, 19th album Slipstream is an interesting one. It's her first studio recording in seven years, following Souls Alike released in 2005. In the intervening period, she did a duo tour with roots musician Taj Mahal, called the BonTaj Roulet. But in recent years, she also lost both her parents, her brother and a close friend, and it caused her to decide to take a hiatus from touring and spend time with family and friends.
When she decided it was time to get back to music, she sought out eclectic roots music producer Joe Henry, who had also been interested in seeking out Ms. Raitt. They found a mutually convenient time to work together in the studio and recorded some eight songs with his band in 48 hours, done as a kind of experiment. Later, inspired and energized by the sessions, Ms. Raitt called together her own regular band of many years, and for only the second time in her recorded career, served as her own producer. Also, after having recorded for Warner Brothers and Capitol Records, for this new recording, she launched her own independent label, called Redwing, which gave her a further degree of independence and creative control, and the result is Slipstream, which combines four of the songs done with producer Joe Henry with his band, with the self-produced material with her own group. It has some diversity in sound, but overall it's a coherent, thoroughly tasteful recording.
Ms. Raitt is in top form, both vocally and on her slide guitar. She seems confident and musically comfortable, and she can deliver the songs with her familiar rock-tinged edge and distinctively textured way she can deliver a ballad. Not a very prolific songwriter, Ms. Raitt has been known for bringing to light the works of lesser-known composers. This time, she includes a couple of Bob Dylan songs, as well as several involving her collaborators on the album, including Joe Henry, Al Anderson of the NRBQ band, Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady who appears on the CD doing backing vocals, and George Marinelli of her band.
The tracks with Ms. Raitt's own group include Marinelli on guitar, Hutch Hutchinson on bass, drummer Ricky Fataar, and relative newcomer to her group Mike Finnegan on keyboards. The tracks with Joe Henry's band include guest appearances by eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.
The generous 57-minute, 12-song CD opens with one of its stronger tracks, a Randall Bramblett composition called Used to Rule the World. The band really cooks in a funky groove right from the start, which I think further inspired Ms. Raitt to her vocal heights. <<>>
An interesting choice of songs for the CD is the Right Down the Line by the late English pop singer Gerry Rafferty. Ms. Raitt and her band give the tune a reggae twist. <<>>
The first of the tracks to come out of the sessions with producer Joe Henry and his band is the Bob Dylan song A Million Miles. The 1997 composition takes on a kind of down-in-the-swamp sound with Ms. Raitt's vocal performance being sheer perfection. <<>>
A song with more of the kind of sound that has given Ms. Raitt her commercial hits is a joint Joe Henry-Loudon Wainwright composition called You Can't Fail Me Now, also performed with Henry and his band. <<>>
It's back to the rock groove for the one song on the CD that Ms. Raitt co-wrote. Down To You, written with George Marinelli of her band and Randall Bramblett, has a great Rolling Stones kind of groove. <<>> Marinelli and Ms. Raitt do some duelling guitars. <<>>
Al Anderson, of the normally rocking band NRBQ, co-wrote the album's slowest ballad Not Cause I Wanted To. The lyrics are appropriately about the end of a love affair. <<>>
One of the most interesting tracks lyrically is Marriage Made in Hollywood, co-written by Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady, who appears on the backing vocals. <<>>
Al Anderson appears on guitar on another of his co-writes, Split Decision. Ms. Raitt also plays some mean slide guitar. <<>>
The CD ends with a piano ballad by Joe Henry called God Only Knows which highlights Ms. Raitt's surprisingly non-bluesy vocal. It's more along the lines of the kind of material Ms. Raitt did in theatrical appearances with her late father John Raitt. <<>>
Bonnie Raitt's new CD Slipstream, which according to her website, will also be available on vinyl, is, I think, one of the finest recordings of Ms. Raitt's long and illustrious career. Perhaps it was the hiatus she had taken from music in the wake of personal losses of family and friends. Or perhaps it was because she was largely producing herself, and also now on her own independent record label. And perhaps it was getting back together with her regular band as well as working with a different group in the tracks produced by Joe Henry. Perhaps it was all of the above, but Bonnie Raitt shows that at age 62 she is still at her peak. The recording gives us all that we have come to expect and respect from Ms. Raitt, with a lot of class and a kind of musical camaraderie that is obvious from Slipstream's opening moments.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." Ms. Raitt's vocals are nicely recorded with warmth and clarity, and the instrumental mix is clean and honest. But the recording suffers from the ubiquitous bugaboo of excessive volume compression to make the CD appear louder, but making it bland, taking away the punchiness that the rockier tunes deserve.
Close to 41 years after her debut LP, and seven years since her last studio recording, Bonnie Raitt has released a gem of an album that her many fans will not want to miss.
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