Historically, we make the “fathers” of rock — who range from Johnny Cash to Robert Plant — deities, but neglect icons like Bonnie Raitt in the process. Men have monopolized rock as a whole, which negatively impacts the genre. But there are major players like Bonnie Raitt, a rockstar who achieved commercial success in the late 1980s with her album Nick of Time. Her skill came on full display at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Sept. 24.
Raitt, now a staple of the music industry, proved that talent is timeless as she exhibited her skills onstage. A vision in flare jeans with a lion’s mane of auburn hair and a guitar around her neck, her physical aesthetic perfectly matched the energy of her concert: easygoing, effortless and classic.
In many ways, Raitt’s music transcends traditional conceptions of “rock.” Sure, she plays rock and 12-bar blues like many others in her genre, but there’s an added spark to her performance that elevates her to a level above many of her peers. This was evident even in her first performance, a cover of INXS’ “Need You Tonight.” She has perfect musical intuition and knows when to alter her voice to a raspier rock growl or a smooth, sweet bluesy croon.
This is only one of many reasons she has 10 Grammy awards; her skills as a vocalist are paralleled only by her guitar capabilities. Much of her set was focused on rock chords, but there were a few songs that stood out as showy guitar numbers. “All Alone with Something to Say,” from her latest album Dig in Deep, is slower, with a stripped-down feel and a guitar solo that is understated but melodically beautiful.
Later came “Devil Got My Woman,” a raw song conveying a quiet rage, seemingly bubbling under the surface, that Raitt perfectly captures. On this track in particular, her smoky, rich voice pairs nicely with her smooth guitar playing. The intimate quietness of this song makes you feel like she’s invited you into her home to play privately with only you and her connected in a moment of musical attachment.
Raitt’s concert came with interludes of social commentary. Her political activism goes all the way back to the early 1970s, and since then she has been vocal about issues ranging from the use of nuclear weaponry to the presidential race.
She made her distaste for Donald Trump clear early during the concert, joking that she keeps trying to tell everyone about this recurring nightmare where Donald Trump is running for the presidency. Despite her joke, it was clear that she was not happy about Trump’s candidacy, but it felt like she was complaining about the election like any friend might to another. It is inspiring to see a musician take a strong stand for such important causes, and it added an authenticity to the performance that is hard to recreate.
During her encore, Raitt performed what might be her most popular number, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” With such a uniquely beautiful voice as hers, sweetly lilting between notes and phrases without sounding forced, the performance was perhaps the most haunting, exquisite, emotional rendition of that song ever performed, even with covers from folks like Adele and Bon Iver.
There’s a famous saying by Malcolm Gladwell: It takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. Bonnie Raitt embodies this, and then some. Her extensive career and decades of touring, recording and performing bring a natural feel to her performance. At this point, it would suffice to say that performing isn’t second nature to her — it’s first nature.