Bonnie rates her guitar as second fiddle

July 29, 1994|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder News Service

When Bonnie Raitt started making records in 1971, she stepped into rare territory.

Female blues singers were common, but female blues guitarists were practically unheard of.

Slide guitar, Ms. Raitt's specialty, was becoming a lost art, its smooth, round effect usurped by the scream and crank of rock 'n' roll players at the time.

But nowadays there's a legion of female rockers strapping on guitars. And even slide is making a comeback.

"I hear plenty of slide on TV commercials for beer and trucks," Ms. Raitt, 44, says with a chuckle. "It's uncanny how it becomes such a selling thing now. Hopefully it won't be so saturated that everybody gets sick of it."

Her guitar now takes second seat to her singing and songwriting. Her last three albums -- the Grammy winners "Nick of Time" and "Luck of the Draw" and the new "Longing in Their Hearts" -- are showcases of song craft rather than instrumental dexterity.

There's still some fine playing, mind you, but you're as likely to find Ms. Raitt on keyboards as on guitar.

"I know how to play piano better than guitar," says the California-born Raitt, whose performing career began in coffeehouses when she attended Radcliffe College during the late '60s.

"I took piano lessons as a kid. I never took guitar lessons, though I wish I had. I was never a guitar hound; it's just something I do and I love playing, but I don't sit around and practice. I just play when I'm on stage or when I'm writing or learning new songs.

"I have a wider range of expression on keyboards, a better command -- especially when it comes to writing."

Still, it's not hard to find admirers of Ms. Raitt's guitar technique. "Oh, the girl can play," says blues great John Lee Hooker, a mentor of Ms. Raitt. "Back when she started out, she'd sit around and play with us and she could keep up with anybody. She had that real feeling, that same instinct that you hear from the greats."

Don Was, who produced Ms. Raitt's last three albums, notes that guitar is just one of her talents.

"For a long time she was a blues mama with a guitar," Mr. Was says. "People don't realize what a complete artist she is. She writes poetry, too."

For her part, Ms. Raitt -- who splits time in two California residences with her husband, actor Michael O'Keefe -- long ago gave up searching only for songs that would fit her guitar playing.

Raitt and Hornsby

Bonnie Raitt, with opening act Bruce Hornsby

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

When: Tonight, 8 o'clock

Tickets: $18.50-37.50

Call: (410) 730-2424 for information; (410) 481-SEAT for tickets.

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