(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
Acknowledging that early in her career she would “never have been able to set foot” in a tent housing a jazz festival, Bonnie Raitt very aptly closed the four day run at Sonoma Jazz+, constantly educating the audience in musical history and, in the process, giving the capacity crowd the party they were looking for.
While the festival seems to be moving more and more away from traditional jazz, Raitt brought an amazing band and some well-suited musical guests in paying tribute to blues, rock, reggae, r&b and jazz—“all the tributaries and roots of not just jazz,” she said, “but what we call good music.”
Bonnie Raitt has worked through the years with drummer Ricky Fattar and bassist extraordinaire James “Hutch” Hutchinson, but the addition a few years ago of George Marinelli on guitar has become the perfect compliment to Raitt’s slide guitar and rock and rhythmic style—expertly filling the voids with single notes, short riffs and all-out leads without taking the attention away from center stage. But by far, Raitt’s band has profited the most with the addition of Jon Cleary on keyboards. His swampy New Orleans jazz/roots/funk style is the base from which he can also deliver rock, r&b and even those dark, smoky bar ballads, wrenching true human emotion out of every single note from his keyboard.
Raitt’s set list drew from all along the timeline of her lengthy career and showcased a varied cross section of musical styles. While Raitt has not written the majority of her recorded material, she has a gift for choosing other artists’ songs, no matter what the genre, and making them uniquely her own. Bonnie’s all out rockin’ version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” was early in the set, soon followed by the r&b gem from Isaac Hayes, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” She introduced it as a song about “how messed up love can be—and I’ve been makin’ a livin’ off it ever since.”
Working some reggae into the evening, she did “Premature,” her recent duet with Toots and the Maytals, calling Toots Hibbert “a great songwriter and friend.” She then brought out her first guest of the evening, Maia Sharp, duetting on a song from her recent Souls Alike album, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”
Returning to her self-titled debut album of 1971, she paid tribute to the pioneering blues singer of the 20’s, Sippie Wallace, performing an acoustic slide version of “Women Be Wise.” Cleary’s honky tonk piano solo was a perfect fit and enthralled even Raitt—who waltzed over and laid her elbow on the piano, propped her chin in her hand and seemed as amazed as the rest of the audience at Cleary’s ability.
As advertised, slide master Roy Rogers made his first appearance on stage next, doubling up with Raitt on an absolutely incendiary acoustic version of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” Raitt is one of the better slide guitarists in the business, but even she was thrilled to have Rogers alongside showcasing his unique style. After the song, and the well-deserved standing ovation, she remarked to Rogers, “Your wife is a lucky woman…”
Raitt included John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” bringing Sharp back on stage to join the band, the four backup vocalists soaring on the choruses. The lead track from her most recent album, “I Will Not Be Broken,” finished with a fade into some soft gospel vocal vamps, which led into “Something to Talk About, ” the first of two roadhouse rocking set closers. Exhorting drummer Fattar to “Keep it going, Ricky,” the band finished with “Love Sneakin’ up On You.” The all-ages audience, long ago tired of doing Dan Hicks’ “barstool boogie in their seats,” had filled the aisles in all manner of dance and wasn’t at all ready for the party to be over. Thunderous applause filled the huge but now-intimate tent and brought the band back for a four-song encore.
Noting that it was “not exactly a dance tune,” Raitt, absent her guitar and perched on a stool with a single spot accenting her flame red hair, rode Cleary’s sensuous keyboard work into the beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” While known for her guitar chops and rough edged vocals, Raitt took everyone on a spine-tingling soul search for love never returned, the raw passion fueled no doubt by having admitted in the past that she’d been on “both sides of this one.” And if Bonnie’s vocals didn’t break your heart, Cleary’s closing piano solo finished the job and brought the hard truth of the title into plain view.
Staying in the smoky bar-like vein, and again working with Sharp, Raitt came as close to jazz as she would get on the night through Sharp’s “The Bed I Made.” As suited as Raitt’s vocal intensity is to the song, it was again the musicians who shone, Hutchinson working a nice bass melody, Cleary wringing emotion out of every note and Sharp adding a sexy, breathy baritone sax solo to close out the tune.
Kicking it back into high gear, Raitt strapped on her guitar and pronounced, “Yes, I’m ready!” and brought back Rogers, the song’s co-writer, for their thumping and chunking “Gnawin’ on It,” going shoulder to shoulder with him so she could watch him “blow the windows out of the place.” And that he did.
Always paying tribute and giving credit to others, Raitt dedicated the last song to the late Phil Elwood, the longtime jazz/blues reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner and later the Chronicle, calling him “one of the best friends music ever had.” And in her unending praise to those who paved the way for her, she introduced a tune she’s done through the years with Charles and Ruth Brown, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” A rocking, rollicking shuffle blues, it was the perfect opportunity for Raitt to let each of the musicians shine one more time, including her brother, David Raitt, on the harmonica.
In welcoming the sold-out audience at the start—and make no mistake, this show was the draw of this year’s festival—Raitt, performing close to her real home, said she felt like she was with family. No doubt the crowd, as it reluctantly filed out, was feeling the kinship—“Souls Alike,” if you will—and hoping for a reunion much, much sooner than later.
— Robert Meline