Bonnie Raitt’s debut album features an unusual collection of songs performed by an unusual assortment of musicians. And Bonnie is something out of the ordinary herself. She has been traveling the blues-festival circuit since 1968, playing the Boston-New York-Philadelphia folk run, since 1970. Now she has done something unusual with her first Warners album.
In August, Bonnie rented a fishing camp on a Minnesota island, solicited the production services of Willie Murphy, the musical talent of his Bumblebees, and the fourtrack equipment of “Snaker” and Sylvia Ray. Bonnie then enticed Junior Wells and A.C. Reed from Chicago to join her regulars, bassist Freebo and guitarist-folk-singer Peter Bell. The sessions were done in a two-car garage and the product is good: a different album, a representative portrait of this artist.
Bonnie accompanies her folk-blues on a Mississippi National steel guitar. Her slide work is uncommonly good, equal to her straight acoustic stuff — in fact, it is simply among the best. Unfortunately, her ability is not fully captured on this album, because Bonnie’s guitar is not amply showcased — a major fault of the production.
There are two obvious idioms on the album — rock-soul and folk-blues. A third genre consists of three estranged numbers that are joined by the mood of their rendition. In their melancholy tone, these songs are the most consistently pleasing — Paul Seibel’s countrified quickie of an incredible lyric, “Any Day Woman,” “Spider” John Koerner’s rainy-day special, “I Ain’t Blue,” and Bonnie’s simple, personal piano ballad, “Thank You.” On these tunes, Bonnie’s thin, folk-founded voice is properly suited with a minimal amount of backing. Her ability to communicate emotion and involvement is most effective here.
Comparatively, the rock-soul treatments, reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s reworking of “I’m Losing You,” are heavily produced. Bonnie capitalizes on the soulful potential of Steve Stills’ “Bluebird” and the existent groove of a former Marvelettes single, “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead.” On these songs, the shift in emphasis goes from mood to delivery, and Bonnie succeeds best vocally on “Danger.” There’s an inkling of her electric slide talent there, too, as she weaves around the song, using the slide as an additive agent, not a gimmick. And this is an arrangement where you’d least expect to hear bottleneck. On “Bluebird,” Bonnie’s ability to use musical cliches tastefully is exemplified by the “bum-do-wadda” chorus that is carried in a joyful, respectful vein without the cynicism that so often undercuts such maneuvers.
In keeping with Bonnie’s image and preferences, there are five blues numbers. The selections are rare (Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” “Mighty Tight Woman,” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road”) traditional (Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”) and contemporary (Bonnie’s “Finest Lovin’ Man”). Arrangements are consistently good, the music solid. Yet congruent with the proverbial blues predicament, the songs fall short, into a gray area between the other cuts. Combining the elements scattered throughout the album is a bittersweet version of an old Lenny Welch hit, “Since I Fell For You,” and justice is done to it. As Bonnie says, “A.C. [tenor sax] blows his ass off on that one.” Reed, Jimmy’s brother, is the stellar sideman throughout the album. When the back-up occasionally absorbs Bonnie’s role as primary figure, A.C. stands out as most likely successor.
At times, Bonnie is a self-conscious vocalist and the tension in her voice is evident. So are the good times, struggles, exhaustion, creativity caught by this informal, somewhat bizarre recording. The weirdness of the whole affair is best summed up in the sound reproduction. When played on a low quality system at high volume or a high quality box through earphones, the results are best. It wouldn’t be surprising if that was intentional too.