Bonnie Raitt has spent the better part of her 72 years on this planet not just playing, recording and touring behind her classic American roots-based music, but living as an activist in support of environmental and peace movements. To say the times weigh heavy on her mind is an understatement.
But neither a global pandemic that has already waylaid her touring plans for the last two and a half years, nor a nuclear-threatening autocrat waging war on Ukraine is dampening her joy at returning to the road and releasing her first new music in six years.
Her 22nd album, Just Like That…, drops on April 22 and Raitt continues adding dates to a tour that will easily span 2022 and possibly beyond, and bring some of her best friends and most admired artists along for the ride.
“I’m heart- and soul-sick about the war, but I’m also extremely excited and grateful to be heading out on the road, with the early response my record is getting from the journalists I respect and my friends that I just shared it with,” Raitt tells Pollstar. “And it’s always exciting when the baby is finally out. But you know, when the early reports come in from your peers, that means so much to me that they feel the way they do.”
Just Like That… could describe so much about the last two-plus years – not just an abrupt and lengthy concert shutdown that not only pulled the plug on her much-anticipated tour with James Taylor, but also the loss of many friends to COVID, including John Prine and Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals. Just like that, so much was lost.
But she’s found meaning in that time – a renewed hunger to perform for her fans and inspiration to approach her songwriting with a zeal for storytelling. With Just Like That…, the album and tour, she’s looking ahead with great optimism.
“I know that [touring] is a treat,” Raitt explains. “I’ve been on the road since I was 20; so over 50 years now. The last show I did [before the shutdown] was Madison Square Garden, opening for Mark Knopfler in September of 2019. I have been really busy performing some solo events from my house for benefits over the last couple of years, but nothing compares to playing with your band and nothing will compare to being in front of my audience again.”
While itching to get back to performing, Raitt and her team, agent Brett Steinberg of CAA and manager Kathy Kane of GRI, left little to chance when it became apparent that the COVID pause would not be a brief one. They are nothing if not pragmatic and believe in meticulous tour planning.
“We always make plans well in advance,” Steinberg emphasizes. “She has plenty of lead time to make sure that she’s playing the right market and the right venue. When you put a tour together, the more lead time you have, the better off you’re going to be. We were very fortunate because when all these artists started to pivot to 2022, after planning on 2021, we already had all of our dates locked in.”
Just since 1999 – she started touring before Pollstar was established and keeping records in 1981 – she’s reported some 530 shows, sold 1.49 million tickets, and grossed more than $73.4 million. On average, she moves roughly 3,200 tickets per show for a gross of $157,176.
But Raitt’s career is not all about the box office. Kane says Raitt is also very intentional about performing, whether it’s her own tour or a benefit, for the right reasons and not just for a paycheck. Kane, who went into artist management after a stint working at New York City’s Wetlands Preserve – the Peter Shapiro-owned venue was as much a community center for activism as for music – has deep roots in advocacy, including time with Greenpeace, and aligns with Raitt’s values.
“We are like-minded and rooted in activism, with decisions based on integrity and not money,” Kane says. “Even if there’s a wonderful opportunity to make money, that doesn’t mean the opportunity is wonderful for Bonnie. We both come at her career and work together from a perspective of what she wants to do because she wants to, not because she feels she has to, or someone says, ‘Oh, here’s all this money, let’s go do this.’ That’s not the way she does it. She does it because she wants to make music and play for the fans.”
And now, the time is right. She’s already playing some one-offs relatively close to her Northern California home, including a March 28 show in Modesto, Calif., with singer Maia Sharp and March 30 in Reno, Nev., before beginning her “Just Like That” tour in earnest April 12 in Rochester, N.Y., with roots-rockers NRBQ in support.
They will spend April performing in theaters and performing arts centers in the Northeast until Raitt takes her caravan to the Midwest and South starting May 12 in Tulsa, Okla., with Lucinda Williams and including two nights at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville May 26-27.
Another leg, starting June 12 at Andrew J. Brady ICON Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, sees gospel and soul icon Mavis Staples joining Raitt on mostly amphitheater stages through the summer to early fall when Marc Cohn comes on board in support.
Fans are in for a treat. In addition to an enviable, career-spanning catalog, including Nick Of Time and Luck of the Draw, each of which earned Raitt three of her 10 Grammy Awards, she’ll be performing her new music from Just Like That…, already being touted as one of the best of her career.
Among the album’s highlights are four songs written by Raitt including “Living For The Ones,” dedicated to friends and family she’s lost in recent years, and “Waitin’ for You to Blow,” a treatise about the perils of recovery.
Raitt says she was inspired by John Prine, who died of COVID in April, 2020, to write more “third-person story songs,” and she’s particularly succeeded with “Down The Hall” and the album’s title track.
“[‘Just Like That…’] is actually one song that I was writing about the losses that I’ve had and how I’ve been able to get through that, just my personal living for the ones that didn’t make it,” Raitt says. “I think it started when I lost my brother in 2009 after a long battle with brain cancer. He lost his sight and his ability to walk there at the end for a couple of months. And I just remember waking up every day and saying, ‘I’m never going to complain about anything again after watching people whose illnesses or life circumstances have cut their ability to even live one more day.’ So I’m living for the ones who didn’t make it.”
In the album’s liner notes, she includes a list of 14 names of those she’s recently lost, and to whom the record is dedicated. But perhaps no dedication is as fitting as her decision to pay homage to Prine, who wrote “Angel From Montgomery,” a song that Raitt has firmly made her own.
“Other songs were lined up to put on this next record, like ‘Down The Hall’ before the COVID shutdown, and I put the music to them right before we went in the studio in June,” she says. “I was inspired greatly by the music of Bob Dylan’s early records and Jackson Browne’s first record. But John Prine and Paul Brady were real touchstones for ‘Down the Hall,’ musically.
“His story songs just shine, especially with ‘Angel from Montgomery’ and ‘Donald and Lydia.’ I just cried – the way he can crawl into somebody’s persona and soul and sing from that point of view really affected me so much. And that’s what I wanted to do this time.”
But despite some of the subject matter, Just Like That… has plenty of funky joy and, as is often said of the best blues music, it makes you feel better when you’re down. Raitt has never shied away from crossing musical genres, and on some tracks one can clearly hear the influence of Toots Hibbert, another decades-long friend and artist, who died of COVID in September 2020.
Raitt’s association with Hibbert is one of her longest.
“I got turned on to reggae music as a young woman just about the same time I was making my early records,” Raitt explains. “I saw ‘The Harder They Come,’ the seminal movie about the whole Jamaican music scene starring Jimmy Cliff, in Cambridge [Mass.], where I lived. I was going to school and continued to live there during my first two years of my career.
“That movie played in Central Square for probably like two or three years – that’s how popular it was – and I just fell in love with Bob Marley and Toots & The Maytals. That whole soundtrack is still one of my favorite albums. But I loved it because, you know, he reminded me of the great soul singers like Otis Redding and many of the soul artists that I love.”
It’s also a source of consternation for Raitt that many of those Black artists, including influences and collaborators like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House and so many more, were denied not only fair compensation for their work, but recognition of their impact on American music.
“It’s always been really important to give credit where credit is due, and modern American music, whether it’s soul or hip-hop or rock and roll or blues or R&B, we owe a tremendous debt to the African-American community who has totally been cut out of knowing their own musical heritage and be exposed to the whole rich tradition of gospel and blues and rhythm and blues and jazz,” Raitt continues. “And it’s so important that we, those of us that make our living based on music that was created by just those pioneers, see to it that they not only get more attention and recognition, but that they get paid.”
To that end, she joined a group of artists and journalists to form the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, including Ruth Brown, Etta James, Harvey Lloyd Price and Dave Marsh, to work on royalty reform and health insurance for those surviving artists. She cites the Grammy Foundation for its work in support of music education and artist support as well.
And despite the dearth of dedicated music education in the schools, Raitt says the kids are alright.
“I’m seeing amazing influences of all kinds of roots music, you know, country music and blues and jazz and world music of all kinds. It’s just a real cross pollination,” Raitt says. “So I think that the blues and R&B, in particular, the roots of the music that I love, the roots of Americana music, all forms are healthy and growing and thriving.”
For Raitt, despite the setbacks of the last two years, her career also continues to grow and thrive – and with a new album and 75-date (and counting) tour to look forward to, the rest of the world’s troubles can wait. There’s too much to be hopeful about.