Streams Of Passion

26 March 2013 | 5:30 am | Dan Condon

“The only frustration is that you want to be on all four stages at the same time, you wanna see all the acts who are oftentimes at the same time as you’re playing!"

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The incredibly affable and stimulating Bonnie Raitt has a palpable passion for music; it can be heard across her 16 studio albums and in her voice as she talks about what has been her life for the past four decades. Yet she can't tell us exactly where that passion came from.

“It's hard to say,” she ruminates. “I think that black music has captured the world's heart and soul and every other part of us – especially below the waist. I just got the cusp of it as a young six- or seven-year-old when I heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry – it was all over. When I was a young pre-pubescent teen I fell in love with Motown like everybody else in my generation and then The Beatles and the Stones kinda reintroduced us to our own blues heritage; there were a lot of covers of R'n'B records that were more obscure that I actually found out about through The Beatles and the Stones.

“I don't know how to describe what I liked about it, but I could tell early on that Ray Charles was doing something to me that Pat Boone wasn't doing.”

She received a great injection of blues into her musical makeup when she went to college in the late-1960s, performing with and befriending true legends of the game.

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“In my early college years I met someone who managed Mississippi John Hurt and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell and a whole slew of incredible bluesmen and became friends with them. I got to know personally a lot of these heroes of mine. When I was first playing clubs, my parents came to one of my gigs and I was singing Built For Comfort, Not For Speed – the Howlin' Wolf tune – on my acoustic guitar. At nineteen I don't think they were expecting me to be singing songs about what I'm gonna do to some guy.”

Raitt comes from a musical family, her father a Broadway star and her mother a pianist, a far cry from the heady rock'n'roll and blues scene of the late-1960s.

“In my early-twenties I was drinking and partying and staying up with Little Feat and my friends; the rock'n'roll lifestyle was pretty different to the Broadway lifestyle, my folks were pretty healthy so I think they were a little concerned about the night-time life,” Raitt laughs. “But they didn't say anything; they just rolled their eyes when I tried to sleep through Christmas a couple of times. But I've been sober for twenty-five years so they were really happy that I got my health together and had a whole other life being awake in the day.”

Bonnie Raitt does roughly two years of road time after the release of a new album, but after touring in support of her 2005 LP, Souls Alike, she took a break.

“My brother had brain cancer and developed a complication and a second tumour so I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. Sadly he passed away, so I took a little hiatus after that because I'd lost my parents before that and I just needed to spend some time at home and not think about the music business or touring or another record. So I gave it a good long rest and waited until I actually missed it – so it was thrilling to get back in the studio.”

Raitt is here on the back of Slipstream, which earned the artist her tenth Grammy (picking up Best Americana Album at this year's awards). It's another fine piece of work from an almost faultless musician, one which saw her team up with renowned producer Joe Henry for the first time.

“I pick a producer partly because of the engineer they work with and partly because of the records they have been doing recently and in each case of the people I chose [in the past], I wanted to go and play in their sandbox,” she explains. “The engineering sound that Tchad Blake gets with Mitchell Froom (who worked with Raitt from 1998 to 2005)…I love that (1992) Kiko record by Los Lobos and I love what they did with Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello. After working on four albums with Don Was and Ed Cherney (from 1989 to 1995) I thought it was a really nice change. Even Don suggested it; he said he thought it would be a real simpatico direction to go. You don't want to just stay with the same people all the time because it gets kinda stale.”

It took a couple of decades for Bonnie Raitt to finally achieve mainstream success, but when it happened, it happened with great gusto. At the 1990 Grammy Awards she came away with three trophies and her Nick Of Time album shot to number one on the charts.

“Absolutely in no way was I doing anything other than being grateful to be off a label that wasn't interested in me,” she admits, referring to her departure from Warner Bros. and signing to Capitol Records. “I had a residual kind of affection from radio and the press, I always got good reviews and people would say, 'Gee I wish Bonnie would get more attention.' I didn't have the looks or the big management push or the drive to be a big star and I didn't really care, I just wanted to build my following and play 'til I'm in my eighties. I wasn't in it for the big number one record.

“I don't think anybody expected me to win all those Grammys in one night; I bet Tom Petty and Don Henley kinda cancelled each other out and I kind of eked in by about fifty votes. Then, within a couple of weeks, my album went to number one on the charts, so it was about an amazing a Cinderella story, especially for a forty-year-old, as you can get.”

Raitt's return to Australia is also a return to Bluesfest; her last performance brought down the house in 2007 and she's more than ready for the next round.

“The only frustration is that you want to be on all four stages at the same time, you wanna see all the acts who are oftentimes at the same time as you're playing! For years I heard about what it was like to play there; I've played a bunch of festivals around Europe and the Jazzfest in New Orleans many times, but Byron Bay's got its own particular patina and reputation and it lived up to it absolutely. In terms of how you get treated and how rowdy it is – it was one of the highlights of all my tours down there. It's always such a creative line-up too. My only regret is I wish I had a week there to party and relax.”

Bonnie Raitt will be playing the following dates:

Tuesday 26 March - Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide SA
Wednesday 27 March - Arts Centre, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 30 March - Deni Blues & Roots Festival, Denilquin NSW
Monday 1 April - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Wednesday 3 April - Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW