Early on in her career, Bonnie Raitt decided that live shows were more important to her than records. She wanted to get out and reach people directly, without having to rely on hype, promotion and hustle. In the time since, she’s done a lot of traveling, but though she still says she’d never want a hit record, the release of her third album may be the one that makes her a “star.”
In the few years that Bonnie has been performing, her style has expanded. She began as a blues player in clubs around Philadelphia and Cambridge, playing as an opening act to idols like Mississippi Fred McDowell. But in time she added songs by contemporary songwriters, and wrote a few of her own as well. She still carries the image of the funky, hard-drinking-blues-mama, but now there’s a wistfulness around the edges. Tough, sure, but with a hint of hidden tears.
In concert, Bonnie projects: She’s right there, open and real. She moves with ease from classic bottleneck blues through old rock and soul numbers to melancholy ballads. When the feel is right the love songs are just as pure and dreamy as secrets shared by candlelight; she breathes a natural intimacy and belief into all her songs. Her raps tend to be stream-of-consciousness ramblings rather than the stage patter of many guitar strummers. More like a slightly loaded friend running down what’s happened since you talked last.
Bonnie now tends toward a bit bigger set. Where she used to perform with just Freebo, the fretless bassman, now she’s added piano and drums to fill out the sound, more like the records. When she signed with Warner Bros. a couple of years ago she copped a sizable advance and cut her first album on a four-track machine in Minnesota at 12-stringer Dave Ray’s studio in the woods.
Bonnie chose to be “one of the boys” on the sessions, and as a result she wasn’t as upfront as some thought she ought to be. The tapes were later re-mixed a bit (and lost some of the original feel), but the album remains a fine one. Though it’s blues-oriented, it set the pattern for those to follow: mixed with blues standards are some Dixielandstyle numbers, a rock or soul standard or two, seasoned by ballads from some of the best contemporary songwriters.
Less than a year later Bonnie was back in the studio again, cutting Give It Up. Bonnie’s guitar was more in evidence here, and her singing surer, but taken as a whole the album seemed a bit aimless, without the cohesive threads to make all the tunes at home with each other.
Which brings us to the new one, Taking My Time (the title comes from old mentor Spider John Koerner’s song). There’s a lot of variety here, but it seems to hang together better, it feels more of a piece.
Bonnie always said she wanted to sound like the Temptations, and their spirit is evoked on the opening cut, “You’ve Been in Love Too Long,” an easy, rocking ballad with nice, cooking bass work. The contemporary songwriters are well-represented, too. Bonnie found existing songs which “said just exactly what I feel,” and then shaped them into personal statements.
Joel Zoss’ “I Gave My Love a Candle” neatly calls to mind old English ballads as well as the lost highway downs — Bonnie gives the “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” chorus such a resigned intensity it stays strong in memory after the other lyrics have passed. “I Feel the Same,” by Chris Smither, opens with nice guitar/bass interplay — it’s one of the two cuts here where Bonnie is heard most on guitar. (She does only vocal on most tracks, which is a shame since she’s much more than just an accompaniment guitarist.) The opening lines are crucial: “I know you’re leaving me, but I’m leaving too.”
“Cry Like a Rainstorm” (Eric Kaz) is still another quietly apocalyptic song of loss: “Tell me how have I sinned — when you cry like a rainstorm, and howl like the wind.”
The only contemporary song that doesn’t fare more than well at Bonnie’s hands is Jackson Browne’s “I Thought I Was a Child.” She seems to feel the spirit, but it somehow escaped her, a near miss. Another near miss is a Raitt standby, the Fred McDowell medley, “Write Me a Few of Your Lines”/”Kokomo Blues.” In concert this is one of Bonnie’s strongest and funkiest numbers, but here the guitar sound is thin and weak, not up to her usual standards; she’s really one of the best slide players around.
The other mainstream blues number, Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” comes off just right, a superfine performance, with perfect low and moody harpwork by Taj Mahal. Mose has long been a musicians’ favorite and the lyrics and lines of this song should make it generally obvious why. Bonnie gives it a fine reading, with just the right balance between weariness and disgust.
On the upside there’s the calypso/reggae-flavored “Wah She Go Do,” with some marvelously shitty slurred horn work and a roller-rink organ riff. The words have already made this another FM favorite: “… if he picks up an outside woman, show him you can pick up two outside men/And that’s the only way, a woman should get some respect today.” Also a good-timey remake of the old Sensations hit, “Let Me In,” replete with “wheeooo”s and earnest tuba work by Freebo (an alumnus of the Pennsylvania Football Band).
The final cut is Randy Newman’s incredibly introspective “Guilty” and it’s one of the downest tracks I’ve ever heard. Bonnie maintains a dual image through all her recorded and live work: On the one hand she’s the ballsy, slide guitar, fast-living mama; on the other, an often deserted wistful child. For every one of her demands (“You better love me like a man … give it up or let me go”), there’s an unspoken but faintly perceptible “please.” That may be a key to why she can get so deep inside people: She’s a magnifying mirror.
On the whole, Taking My Time is a highly satisfying, but a bit down, album. Bonnie’s voice is strong and pure, and always full of feeling, and the backup musicians all work well together. And despite her claim of not caring much about records, it’s evident a lot of her soul went into this one, and that makes it worth hearing.