The News Tribune (N.J.)
August 27, 1989

News Tribune Staff Writer

   There was a night four years ago when Bonnie Raitt stretched out her hand to a paint-chipped wall backstage in a little club in Portland, Ore., and said, "I just want to thank you, Mr. Record Company Man, for everything you've done to make this tour such a success."

   There was no record company man, only the wall, and that was Raitt's little joke. She chuckled, but it was a hollow laugh of frustration from a woman who was closing out yet another tour of playing her soul out to modest but enraptured audiences while record executives a thousand miles away had quit trying to figure out how to sell her to the public.

At the Beacon Wednesday

   That tone of frustration had palpably lifted in Raitt's concert Wednesday night at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan. She arrived with a new record company, Capitol; a new record, "Nick of Time," at No. 15 on the charts; and, at last, an image that might help her sell records.

   The 39-year-old's image is that of a former free spirit who has grown up, matured, and is ready to settle down and write meaningful songs for aging free spirits who have grown up, matured, and settled down. In fact, she made all-too-conscious an effort to allude to this idea and to her newfound success before almost every song.

   But none of that mattered Wednesday, because before you could say, "marketing strategy for yuppies," Raitt and her band would kick off the kind of fierce rocker or ease into the kind of melancholy ballad they have been playing for years. Even though 1989 was being billed as The Year That Changes Everything for Bonnie Raitt, it hasn't changed her music.

   From the brash slide-guitar introduction of her customary opener, Earl Randall's "About to Make Me Leave Home," to the delicate mournfulness of John Prine's ballad "Angel from Montgomery" in the second encore, Raitt captivated the sellout audience with voice and instrument.

   Her voice -- which she admits started decades ago with a sweet country lilt but was pickled through years of hard living to its present toughness -- belted out the NRBQ blues-rocker "Green Lights," caressed Sippie Wallace's old jazz tune "Women Be Wise (Don't Advertise Your Man)," and soared over Wilson Pickett's "Three Time Loser." Pickled or not, she has one of the most expressive voices in music.

   It is outdone only by the expressiveness of her slide guitar. She has an unmatched talent, learned from the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Lowell George, for reaching under your skin in the course of a solo, then finding the one note that will break your heart and sliding slowly, mercilessly up to it. This she did time and again, notably on her own blues "Give It Up," and on John Hiatt's "Thing Called Love," her current single which boasts Dennis Quaid in its video.

   Raitt's guitar is the most underappreciated part of her music, because she gets to play so little on her own records. But she is arguably the finest slide player still living, and her concerts are always a welcome opportunity to hear why.

   Inevitably, there were several songs that were made to fit deliberately with the maturing-artist theme. "Nick of Time," on which she played keyboards, is a lovely ballad she wrote about different characters -- her parents, a friend in her late 30s -- afraid of the erosion they see in themselves with the passage of time. And, her voice breaking, she introduced Eric Kaz's heart-rending "River of Tears" -- which she always dedicates to Lowell George, who died in 1979 -- by talking about the providence that must have smiled down on her to preserve her through the years of rock 'n' roll chaos that killed some of her best friends.

   These were touching moments in a moving concert, and it didn't matter that the presentation was part of a calculated demographic strategy to, as one local baseball-team owner might say, put fannies in the seats. Once the seats were filled, Raitt was playing the music she has played for two decades now, and the emotional power of her music was the only marketing ploy she needed.