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Bonnie Raitt at City National Civic

In Music
TALKIN' BOUT BONNIE: The inimitable Bonnie Raitt comes to City National Civic

TALKIN' BOUT BONNIE: The inimitable Bonnie Raitt comes to City National Civic

We could talk about Bonnie Raitt, who is playing the City National Civic on the Ides of March, as a class act of many years’ standing. She’s iconic, a compact figure crowned with supersize hair the color of a vixen’s tail, a great-hearted roots rocker with a fetchingly sly approach to songs about that man-woman thing. We could talk of her deftness as a bottleneck electric guitarist, or the way her pop hits still ornament jukeboxes in the best bars.

Raitt burst into the 1990s—and her fifth decade—with “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About,” a song that still has its swagger nearly 30 years later. YouTube shows how much fun Raitt is live, in an authorized video of her New Year’s Eve 1979 concert at the Oakland Arena. She’s just a month past her 40th birthday, good humored, and praising the band: “Sizzling like bacon!”

We could talk about her background—the daughter of John Raitt, one of the original Broadway cast members of Oklahoma! Bonnie was raised Quaker and hung on to the lefty political faith even when the times turned conservative. We could mention the relevance of her cover of Beulah Belle “Sippie” Wallace’s 1966 “Woman Be Wise.” That little warning ought to be required for anyone who insists on going on about the marvelousness of their significant others on social media. “Woman be wise—don’t advertise your man!”

Instead, let’s point to one particular Raitt recording, and her gift for improving what seemed to be unimprovable. Raitt covered Joni Mitchell’s “That Song About the Midway” on her 1971 album Streetlights. The midway song is a counterpart to Mitchell’s hit “Both Sides, Now,” the one everyone knows as “Clouds.” Unlike the song about ice cream castles in the air, “That Song About the Midway” hasn’t been worn out by repetition and homogenized covers by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Leonard Nimoy. Where “Clouds” is about a twenty-something girl trying to seem wise beyond her years—sort of the “Royals” of its day—“That Song…” is more knowingly bitter.

It’s a story of what happens to a player when the luck runs out. She spots a special man at a carnival: “You stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear.”  (Leonard Cohen, the rumored subject of the song, affected such an earring.) He’s a devilish, angelic guitarist who is going to play for a while and go his way, as the verses unfold, against images of the fair shutting down and moving on. She, the lover, is left behind to gamble, to take long shots on losing prospects, and to go through the motions. She laments, “Over time, I’ve lost my fire.”

Mitchell does a solo guitar version of her song, with its fingerpicking and climbing minor notes, with its gracious, hopeless send-off to the departing man: “I envy you the valley that you’ve found.”

I’ve gone on a bit about this song because Mitchell doesn’t have nearly enough candles on her altar—and maybe someone should swipe some burning votives from Dylan’s shrine to keep it illuminated. My point is that Raitt takes this unimpeachable love song and does something to it. She gets more body and less mind into the mix, adds bongos and bass, as well as some mellotron for the strings. The now-antique, tape-driven synthesizer was always sadder than the real thing, either from the mechanical, throbbing tone, the retrofuturism or because it’s extinct today.

Fooled once, Mitchell sounds sadder but wiser. Raitt sounds fooled a few more times than that, like a woman who knew the tryst with the man in the midway was a bad gamble in the first place. The inimitable crystal perfection of Mitchell’s original yields to living warmth—Raitt’s drawl colors in that wretched circus of romance that makes a clown out of everyone.

The best love songs are mnemonic—listen, and you may not remember all the details but you’ll remember the sting—and this song is just one small element of Raitt’s function as a blues player and wise woman. She can do it all, and she’s still going strong.

Bonnie Raitt
Mar 15, 8pm, $50+
City National Civic, San Jose

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