Bonnie Raitt is back. I didn’t know she was gone, but she was. And I’m glad she’s back. At age sixty-two, Bonnie Raitt has just released Slipstream, her first CD since 2005, on her own label, Redwing. She took time off after her brother Steve died of a brain tumor in 2009. She’d already lost both parents and her best friend, and she needed time to regroup.
Bonnie Raitt built a loyal following in the 1970s on the concert circuit playing bottleneck guitar when few women had strong reputations as guitarists. Warner Brothers released her first album, Bonnie Raitt, in 1971, then dropped her in 1986 because they weren’t making enough money. Three years later, newly sober, she began a roll that hasn’t stopped, starting with Nick of Time, followed by Luck of the Draw in 1991 and Longing in Their Hearts in 1994, winning Grammies galore. When her contract with Capitol Records ran out in 2005, she weighed her options and did her research “with four great women” and decided to start the third phase of her career with her own label.
“I know that CDs sell less and less, and I’d rather have more of a piece of it,” she told Jon Pareles of the New York Times. “I like to have my freedom. Nobody ever told me what to play or when to come out with a record or who to work with. But it’s best to have it really be on my terms.”
As I watched Bonnie Raitt performing on Colbert and Good Morning America, I was struck by how unchanged she is, despite the decades that have passed since I first saw her in the early 1970s. The flaming red hair with its streak of white — “this Pepe Le Pew thing,” she’s called it — the bell-bottom jeans and boots, the shimmering black silk top. Very little make-up, no cosmetic surgery. She looked her age. Her gift for expressing emotions in a way that speaks to generations of women (and men) is why I love her. She’s never tried to fit in with current trends in music; steeped in the blues, she continues to play what she likes. She is careful, scrupulous, honest. She has a social conscience and supports human rights, women’s rights, and the environment, playing countless benefit concerts, but all in her quiet way.
I immediately tried to get tickets for her June show at the Beacon Theater in New York City in the neighborhood where I live. Damn, sold out. I tried ebay and realized that at $200-plus per ticket, I couldn’t afford it. I became obsessed; I felt I had to see Bonnie Raitt. So out of desperation, I bought four tickets to see her on June 9 at Mohegan Sun, high in the balcony, for just $35 each.
“Road trip,” I told my teenage daughter, Lili, hoping she’d join me.
“Are you kidding?” she responded. “Why would I want to see HER?”
“Because you love her. We listen to her music all the time!”
“Road trip,” I told my friend Pam, a psychologist my age who I figured had to love Bonnie. She said, “Great!”
Then Coleen, a book agent, and Jeanne, an architect, signed on. They are both under sixty, perhaps a bit young to remember Bonnie the way Pam and I do. But they were game for a road trip, especially to Mohegan Sun.
“That’s hilarious,” Pam’s daughter, age twenty-five, said when she heard the news.
Mohegan Sun, the second largest casino in the country, is in Uncasville, Connecticut. I’d never been, but I figured it was worth a try, to see Bonnie. Little did I know that the Mohegan Sun Arena seats 12,000 people, vs. 2,600 at the Beacon Theater.
We set out to see Bonnie in the afternoon on Saturday, June 9.
“What should we wear?” Coleen asked. “Cowboy boots,” I responded, thinking I still had a few pairs in the attic, left over from the 1970s when they were all I ever wore.
We set out in Pam’s VW Jetta wagon that runs on diesel fuel and gets over forty miles a gallon. “Bonnie would approve,” I told the group, knowing of her support for the environment. As we approached Mohegan Sun, we were overcome with shock at the massiveness of the place, with huge parking lots and tens of thousands of people.
Our seats were in the third-to-last row of the balcony. Just climbing the stairs was a challenge, and once seated, vertigo set in. When Bonnie appeared onstage, she was tiny; we had to watch her on huge video screens next to the stage.
Bonnie remarked that she heard a kid refer to her as one of “grandma’s favorite singers.” The audience, mostly grandparents, cheered.
The demand for tickets at the Beacon was so great that another concert had to be added. The Beacon, an historic landmark, hosted Bill Clinton for his sixtieth birthday in 2006, and the Rolling Stones played for him. Bonnie belongs at the Beacon. Oh, how I wish I’d seen her there, and not in a gambling casino that was so “un-Bonnie.”
My favorite song is “Down to You” with its strong message that “You can’t just wait around for what you want, it’s all about the way you choose, ain’t nobody else that can make things right, baby it’s down to you.” She ends with, “Down to you, honey.” Way to go, Bonnie, you sound like the same old rocker I love, still calling your own shots.