BONNIE RAITT: BONNIE RAITT (1971)
1) Bluebird; 2) Mighty Tight Woman; 3) Thank You; 4) Finest Lovin' Man; 5) Any Day Woman; 6) Big Road; 7) Walking Blues; 8) Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead; 9) Since I Fell For You; 10) I Ain't Blue; 11) Women Be Wise.
Upon entering Radcliffe College, Bonny Raitt majored in social relations and African studies, and it shows — what other type of artist would have covered not one, but two songs by (then still fairly obscure among everybody but very hardcore blues aficionados) Sippie Wallace? Both of which are, of course, all about social relations (gender relations, to be exact) in the Afro-American community of the 1920s, and not at all out of date or out of touch in the early 1970s. Yet it is not so much the actual subject that is interesting here as it is the approach, which can make all the difference and make you love this record, hate this record, or use it as casual background for the «boring» category of house parties.
Roots-rock, in those days, used to come in extremes — it could be reverential and self-consciously «spiritual», downplaying the earthiness of the music (they don't call it «roots» for nothing, but too many people played «roots rock» as if it were «angels' rock» instead), or it could assume the «dirty» form of hard-rockers, pub-rockers, shit-rockers, or whatever you'd like to call the self-consciously irreverential crowds. If it didn't come in extremes, though, it was running an even higher risk of not finding its own face. And it is very easy not to be impressed by this record and just walk away saying, «yeah, so what's the big deal?..»
Because on most counts, the 21-year old Bonnie Raitt is professional, but whether she is anything special is not so evident. She knows how to play guitar, pleasantly but not exceptionally (and in any case, her playing on this debut album is intentionally devoid of any flashy demonstration of her later-to-be-respected slide technique); she is a good enough singer, but her voice is physically weak, or, rather, at this juncture she has not yet learned to control it rigorously; and she is not at all a «singer-songwriter», because she writes very few songs — the two numbers that are credited to her are, respectively, a rather generic folk-pop ballad and a rather simplistic blues vamp.
She is, however, an interpreter and a blender of tradition; perhaps the most interesting aspect of the album is its choice of cover material — ranging from then-contemporary songs by Stephen Stills and Paul Siebel (and Bonnie's own, of course) to Motown (the Marvelettes) to vocal jazz to old acoustic blues to, most intriguingly, the «urban blues» tradition of the 1920s, as illustrated by the two Sippie Wallace covers: love for Robert Johnson, one of whose songs is also covered here, may have been ubiquitous in the early 1970s, but proper understanding of the importance of the female blues singers of the pre-Depression era was yet to come (I think that even Bessie Smith was more revered for her legend than actually listened to — unless that feeling is being secretly nurtured by the association with the Band song of that name that bears no resemblance to Bessie Smith's real style whatsoever. Whatever).
There is no particular strife for «authenticity», thank God, outside of Bonnie hiring blues legend Junior Walker to contribute harmonica throughout — and the production by Willie Murphy is intelligent and tasteful, as he tends to avoid any unnecessary tricks or effects, but makes good use of all the immense host of musicians that Bonnie dragged into the empty summer camp on Lake Minnetonka to help her carry on the musical tradition. And this is important, because Raitt sees to it that the album never becomes a pure guitar celebration — pianos, harmonicas, flutes, saxes, even a tuba, comically-importantly puffed into by Freebo on ʽBig Roadʼ, are just as important to make this whole experience into a celebration that is as much «blues» as it is «vaudeville», not to mention «jazz» or «R&B» or «folk-based singer-songwriting, California-style», all one.
Under this sauce, style becomes far more important than substance: I'd like to complain that Bonnie's folksy ʽThank Youʼ is not very memorable, and that the straightforward blues covers where she is being «tough» (ʽMighty Tight Womanʼ) hit harder than the easily-dissipated ballads, but that impression would probably apply to anybody, be they as talented as Ms. Raitt or much less talented. The truth is that Bonnie intuitively gets where it's at: she is able to present herself as a strong, independent character, but does that in the same restrained, self-contained, «polite» manner as her pre-war idols. This is an attitude that does not work wonders for short-time entertainment value — not surprisingly, the album failed to chart — but might command certain respect in the long run.
From a certain point of view, this is Bonnie Raitt at her very best; with a song selection like that, when «old masters» are only marginally offset by contemporary singer-songwriters, Junior Walker on harp, and production that cleverly updates the old honky-tonk without succumbing to the usual 1970s clichés (like drowning everything in a sea of syrupy strings, for instance), if you don't like Bonnie Raitt, you won't like Bonnie Raitt, and if you don't get Bonnie Raitt, there is no stopping you from completely despising her for everything she's done once she stopped drinking, put out Nick Of Time, and became the roots-rock-spokeswoman for people without a proper sense of humor. But you know, it can actually be fun trying to get Bonnie Raitt, at least, in that period of hers where she still had some sort of meaningful agenda, rather than just wanting to hang out with all the other cool people. Thumbs up.