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The Weekly interview: Slide-guitar great Bonnie Raitt

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The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer plays the Pearl at the Palms on February 17.
Marina Chavez/Courtesy
Matt Wardlaw

In her earliest days as a performer, Bonnie Raitt didn’t view music as a long-term career.

While attending Radcliffe College in the Boston area, she saw someone playing at a club and realized she could earn some extra money doing the same thing. Once she got her foot in the door, the phone calls never stopped.

More than 45 years later, there’s no question she made the right move. Her résumé includes 10 Grammy wins and 2000’s induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and she recently made it into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, too, alongside B.B. King and Kris Kristofferson.

Ahead of this week’s show at the Pearl, we spoke with the slide-guitar maven from her Northern California home to discuss a variety of subjects, including her 2016 album, Dig in Deep.

When did you first come to Las Vegas? Early in the ’70s, when my dad [award-winning Broadway actor/singer John Raitt] was performing in a show. I believe it was A Musical Jubilee at the Desert Inn. It was kind of a mini-Broadway revue with Dick Shawn and Tammy Grimes, as I remember.

[Vegas] didn’t look anything like it does now, but it was really exciting if you hadn’t seen it before. It was just legendary to see the Strip lit up at night.

You’ve said your dad’s work gave you the love you have for the road. My brothers and I couldn’t believe that my dad didn’t have to get a regular job, that he played golf during the day and hung out and washed the car and picked us up at school sometimes. Then he’d go off to work at night, and we’d go see him play. It didn’t look like work to us.

But there was actually a lot of work—learning his lines and schlepping around on the road. [Once I started performing], I really got what my dad loved about it. When you make that many people happy every night and you have your days free and you travel around like a gypsy? I fell in love with it by watching how much fun my dad had.

How much did his approach to characters rub off on you in terms of how you interpret other people’s material? I grew up watching my dad’s shows and so many pop and jazz singers just inhabit the song. I was so aware of how committed people were, whether it was films about Billie Holiday or watching Mahalia Jackson sing gospel, [with] whatever point of view they were taking—including Frank Sinatra singing those three o’clock in the morning blues [songs]. You know, “No one in the place/’cept you and me”—he was just so authentic.

A great song is a great song no matter what genre it is. And once you sing it, you take the role and that point of view, whether you’re in a play or whether it’s something from your personal life; you’re communicating an emotion that’s so real. That’s what a great song will do.

I love what you did with INXS’s “Need You Tonight” on your latest record. How did you develop this version? I mean, I was a huge INXS fan—and still am—and ever since I heard that song I knew I would want to stop and sing “You’re one of my kind” and then play some slinky slide all over it.

I wanted to slow it down, and I wanted to be able to open up the chorus to fit the way I wanted to sing it. My guitarist, George Marinelli, is great at coming up with fantastic licks to make something our own. I had the arrangement and the idea of doing it a little bit slower and kind of played it, and then he added the opening licks and just nailed it.

You’ve spoken about playing things in soundcheck that you want to record, including AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Is that something you might actually try? That particular marriage of vocal and guitar licks is still one of the most classic rock recordings. But I don’t think I would add it into the show, because lyrically it doesn’t really lift me up.

And I can’t scream like Bon Scott can, and you really need to be able to sound like that to pull it off. You know, you have to have Bruce Springsteen’s voice, or Michael Bolton’s, or Paul Rodgers’.

“Undone” off the new album left me with some homework after I got done listening—like, I’ve got to hunt down more of Bonnie Bishop’s stuff. She’s incredible. On the last record I did “Not Because I Wanted To,” which she co-wrote with NRBQ’s Al Anderson. [Before that] I was unfamiliar with her, but Jon Pareles and Nate Chinen from The New York Times both listed that as the best song of the year in 2012, and those guys are really discerning.

The depth that she’s coming from, to come up with those words … I mean, the opening line just by itself, if she never wrote anything else. That is just such a deep way of saying how cold it is when you have a cutting tongue. You know, “There’s a sword at the tip of my tongue/That shows no mercy on the latest one.”

A little more than a year ago, you said, “To have an auction instead of an election is ridiculous.” How do you even begin to take stock of what we’re seeing right now? It’s just so wrenching every day. I’m wary of so many of the threats to free speech and a responsible free press and what we’re calling the truth and what science is. I mean, just on the basic level of what’s real and getting the proper information out to people. It’s very, very upsetting every day.

That’s something I couldn’t have even foreseen a year ago. I do know people are really frustrated, and I imagine some of them are thrilled with what’s been going on the last couple of weeks. But I’m not pulling any punches about where my sympathies lie. The system isn’t working and serving us, but what’s being done about it right now is a big threat to our system of democracy, and the possibility of working together is really threatened by these moves that have been made.

So I’m very involved with trying to organize and get people to empathize with the other side and open up conversations to try to find some solutions—and in the meantime, absolutely express my resistance to being run over by some things that have nothing to do with the law.

Bonnie Raitt February 17, 8 p.m., $46-$91. The Pearl, 702-942-7777.

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