Before that oddly amazing day when Bonnie Raitt needed a shopping cart to get her Grammy awards home, I’m rather certain that she identified herself as an industry outsider, unlikely to ever get recognition beyond the fringes.
I was extraordinarily happy for her sudden tidal wave of recognition on that historic evening, but it didn’t much shift my own opinion of her work. I was one of the kids who grew up with her early albums. One of my first girlfriends (eventually my first wife) owned a dog-eared copy of Raitt’s debut album (“Bonnie Raitt”), and we listened to it until the vinyl turned gray. It wasn’t her best album, but it was cool as hell.
Somehow, Raitt ably represented yet another generation of blues performers by turning us kids on to old stalwarts like Sippie Wallace and the Johnsons (Tommy and Robert, no relation), a college-aged woman teaching even younger kids like me about roots music. Perhaps it was a sexist observation, but this was 1971, and she was a girl playing the blues on a slide guitar. Through Raitt, I discovered Little Feat, for which I will be forever grateful, and all of this history means that I put a strong emphasis on her raw, early work, because it sounds feisty, sexy and hip, with virtually no pretension whatsoever. Raitt’s second album (“Give It Up”) featured better production, and she even wrote some of her own material. In comparison to her debut, it was almost slick, but it was also a bit ballad heavy, which weighed the album down a bit. It was her third album that smacked me between the eyes and rocked my world.
“Takin’ My Time” was as eclectic an album as anything I’d heard up until that point, mashing together blues, pop, balladry, and calypso, featuring musicians that played with the space and confidence of a New Orleans-styled session band. Perusing the credits was almost intimidating, listing more than two dozen players. How could so many people make an album that sounded so unified and together? Among names like Freebo (her bassist from day one), I also recognized Jim Keltner and Earl Palmer (two of the all-time most respected names in rock and roll drumming), and Van Dyke Parks due to his Beach Boys affiliation, but who were all of these other people? A bit of detective work led me to discover that a lot of those guys were members of Little Feat, a band I had only heard of but never actually heard. I subsequently recognized that these same guys featured on the album’s best songs, a moment of discovery that kicked off a lifetime’s obsession for what I now consider to be one of America’s best bands from 1971-1976.
As a whole, the album wasn’t perfect. Side one was good, but it played too much like “Give It Up, Part Two,” with an emphasis on ballads offset by hip material like Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy.” Side two is where the package really came together. It opened with “Wah She Go Do”, a funny and spirited calypso number that allowed Raitt to play up her saucy, sexy side, with a great horn section that exaggerated the bawdy humor. I loved it, but nothing really could have prepared me for her version of Chris Smither’s “I Feel the Same.” I recognized Smither’s name because he wrote “Love Me Like a Man,” a straightforward blues favorite on “Give It Up.” This song was different, though. The progression was less predictable and the band instinctively knew how to breathe between the notes. Here, Raitt surrendered the slide guitar to Little Feat’s Lowell George, who plays like a Zen master, waiting for the exact right moment to release the song’s inner tension. Underneath is pianist Billy Payne, emphasizing that tension with swirls and clusters of ominous notes like an oncoming thunderstorm. The final product is a work of pure genius unlike anything I’d heard until then. As a musician, it literally taught me the meaning of the axiom “less is more.” A nice Jackson Browne song followed, followed by a spirited run through a Mississippi Fred McDowell medley, and then Billy Payne and Lowell George reappear as musicians assigned to rip your heart out under Raitt’s stunningly vulnerable interpretation of Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” providing yet another moment of musical perfection.
Raitt would continue to make some great recordings but none of them would meet the standard of these two phenomenal recordings. What could? Even Little Feat’s own catalogue would have trouble holding up. Consistency is nice, and fame and recognition can be wonderful when it is earned, but I’ll take a few moments of pure perfection any time.
You've Been In Love Too Long
I Gave My Love A Candle
Let Me In
Everybody's Cryin' Mercy
Cry Like A Rainstorm
Wah She Go Do
I Feel The Shame
I Thought I Was A Child
Write Me A Few Of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues
October 1973 - Billboard Charted #87
Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
Album #179 - September 1973
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