Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bonnie Raitt (or, Women in Rock)

In 2008, I got the chance to see Bonnie Raitt perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I was surprised to admit it was the highlight of over three days (and nights) of music. Her electric slide guitar has always been a force capable of that dirty, raunchy, blues sound yet always tasteful and respectful of other sounds in the band. In other words, what my old jazz combo leader used to call, simply, "musical." And you can't argue against her voice, which is nearly as unchanged as is possible for an artist with 30+ years of recording and touring behind her.

After hearing her set, I set out to find some of Raitt's early recordings, which I had never heard. (Basically, I grew up listening to Nick of Time, which is what my parents played around the house. Not that Nick of Time is a bad album, but why do the Boomers always get hooked on mid-career material from artists that put out blazing stuff in the early 70s? Toward that end, I also think that the marketing of the I Am Sam soundtrack to the "adult contemporary" audience damaged a lot of Beatles collections out there, but that's just me.) Today I finally picked up her self-titled debut from 1971.

Once again, I am impressed at how deftly Raitt combines traditional blues, New Orleans romps, and the West Coast singer-songwriter sound on her early albums. And it's a nice perk that "Any Day Woman" sounds like it could be a Townes Van Zandt song (it's not, and she didn't actually write it, but what a nice tone to add to the record). Not to mention, the ultimate wtf moment, reading that Junior Wells plays harp. It's a testament to Raitt's diversity of sound that her back-up musicians include a bar-band from Minneapolis (the Bumblebees) and staples of the Chicago blues scene (Wells, plus A.C. Reed, a member of Buddy Guy's band at the time). Not to mention she plays songs by Stephen Stills and Robert Johnson and the record still feels like a solid whole.

I'm not sure why I've gone on a particular binge of woman singers and songwriters lately, but it's gotten me thinking about why so many of us boys grew up listening to mostly male singers in our youths. (Okay, speaking for myself here, but this is clearly a trend.) When I was 15, I used to think that every member of a band had to play an instrument in order for the band to be legit (e.g., Beatles = good, Rolling Stones = okay). That's changed. Clearly. Because that is stupid fucking criteria for music. But at that time I also had a similar bias against pretty much all woman singers (except Laura Nyro, see previous post). Again, stupid fucking criteria. I'm glad I've outgrown the part of me that thought that way when I was 15. Any guys who still think that way, let's talk.

I watched The Runaways last night and the not-so-subtle theme resonated in light of these thoughts: that men don't want to see women with guitars on stage. I wonder what it will take to make that change. I think probably not Lady Gaga. Maybe more Bonnie Raitts.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Veedon Fleece

I'm on a two-week fall break from work, which means I have some extra time to sit in front of Garage Band with my guitar and record some songs, or at least ideas for songs. It makes sense that my minimal, amateur songwriting mostly takes place in spurts when I am not working. This happens for some of my friends as well. (Check out Charlie Hely's Wednesday for an excellent example.) But I was surprised to read this morning a 1978 interview with Van Morrison, in which he describes a similar process. In not-the-most-nuanced way of describing his songwriting muse, Morrison says, "When you make an album you write some songs. You might have four songs and maybe you write two more, suddenly you've got enough songs for an album." Van the Man. You just blew my mind with your math.

Apparently this was how Morrison put the set of songs together that would become Veedon Fleece, released in 1974. That spontaneity is one reason why the album is often compared to 1968's epic Astral Weeks. There is an element of so-called stream-of-consciousness in the songs. But the albums are actually more similar for their sound. Both feature auxiliary instruments (strings, flute) that float around songs that meander within a simple structure. Astral Weeks will always be my favorite Van Morrison album. Nonetheless, Veedon Fleece holds up on its own quite well. Morrison's voice is high and strange and his lyrics are fresh, as when he croons "... the architecture I'm taking in with my mind." And I could listen to "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River" all day. Actually, considering I have another week of this break, I might just do that.