Denny Laine (Wings, Moody Blues) James Maddock (Wood)
John Leventhal (Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin) Jeff Kievit (Darius Rucker)
Amy Helm (Ollabelle) Clifford Carter (James Taylor, Paul Simon)
Lou Marini (SNL, Blues Brothers) Jeff Kazee (Southside Johnny, early Elton)
Shawn Pelton (SNL, Sheryl Crow) Tabitha Fair (Beyonce, Carole King)
Rich Pagano (Fab Faux, Levon Helm) Elaine Caswell (Cindi Lauper, Mick Jagger)
Zev Katz (Hall & Oates, Roxy Music) Tawatha Agee (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan)
Marc Copely (Ryan Shaw, James Cotton) Jim Keller (Tommy Tutone)
Brian Mitchell (Levon Helm, Rosanne Cash) Christine Ohlman (SNL)
Fred Walcott (Shemekia Copeland, David Johansen)Jim Boggia
Jeff Young (Jackson Browne)
Bonnie Bramlett’s a hugger. And when Bonnie hugs you, y’all have been hugged. Even if 35 years have intervened since the last one.
Props to the Highline Ballroom people who put together a slide show montage projected on the upstage wall behind the two drum kits: photos of D&B and their famous friends (Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Leon Russell, and more), and to whoever mixed the funky tape that played before the show started. You have great taste, whoever you are, and I want a copy of your tape, or at least a track listing!
An impressionistic take on the evening:
Things Get Better–
Cool idea to have Jeff Young singing Delaney’s parts. He carried them better than the other male singers. Tabitha Fair, singing Bonnie’s part in this song, couldn’t do her high notes, so backup singers Elaine Caswell and Tawatha Agee did. Though she’s a belter, her sound was kinda harsh–just power. The two drummers played very well together, and one sang lead, but if you think it’s hard to sing over a drummer, try it over a double rhythm section: it was even harder to hear him.
Comin’ Home had no visual focal/vocal point—when singers are scattered around a stage, it doesn’t work. The dual guitars, center stage, were too mild on this tune; probably needed to be turned up.
Jeff and Amy Helm sang “Only You Know and I Know.” Her voice was in the right range for Bonnie’s vocal, but she didn’t have the rhythm; she was smoothing out the (slowed) tempo instead syncopating the way Bonnie does. The original has drive; this version was sort of second gear. Wish I could’ve heard the guitars better.
Leon Russell’s “Carney”–
It’s not easy to imitate Leon’s crazy old man voice, but Brian Mitchell, one of the two keyboard players, a strange-looking guy with long dark hair growing from the back of his head down (and not much on top), managed to approximate it. One of the female backup trio sang the harmony, and her voice had some of Bonnie’s sweetness, but not her vibrato. Plus it was a little odd to see her using Joe Cocker’s body language.
From All Things Must Pass–
The vocal was shared among the drummers, a guitarist, and Mitchell, who apparently was not trying to sound like Leon; his voice was just freaky-creepy, and was now scaring me.
On this tune, the female backup trio approached Pink Floyd-backup-singer greatness.
Learning to Live Together–
They really shouldn’t let that weird guy sing lead. Backup singer Elaine Caswell has stage presence: she behaved like a lead singer.
Everyone knows this song, but not everyone knows that Bonnie and Leon wrote it.
The band leader announced the singer’s credits, but not her name. I was glad to see Jeff take over keyboards and vocals from Creepy Guy. For the first time that night, Bonnie sneaked into the backup trio. She’s wearing her hair sort of swirly-spiky, like she did years ago, and sunglasses, black pants, a white tee shirt, and a black sparkly sleeveless top over it—no makeup. Dressed for work.
Christine Ohlman, The Beehive Queen, dressed in leopard tights, ankle-length leopard duster with black faux fur trim, rhinestone chandelier earrings, and dark sunglasses, platinum hair piled sky-high, sang Freddie King’s “Take Me Down.” Her killer tough, screaming, low-range funky sound blew the other singers away. Bonnie was in the audience hollering like a fan.
“Stranger in a Strange Land,” a Leon Russell tune…
Caswell sang “That’s What My Man Is For,” and did a great job; she got the closest to Bonnie’s sound. Singing this one in front of Bonnie takes huge guts, because that’s a Bramlett tour de force. Elaine acknowledged Bonnie from the stage: “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be up here singing, girl!” Amen to that. There’s a whole army of white women singing the way they never would’ve without Bonnie’s lead. Do yourself a favor and find the YouTube video of Bonnie (wearing a dress) delivering this song.
Bonnie couldn’t resist jumping up and joining the backup singers again, but Ms. B has far too much energy to just “ooh” and “ahh.” She was conducting them, urging them to leap to a higher harmony every few bars. And that is one of the reasons Bramlett is the gold standard. Listen to her behind Delbert McClinton: on the third repetition of a line, most harmony singers take the last couple of notes lower, resolving the line. Bonnie takes the last notes, or even just the last one, higher, ramping up the excitement. No wonder all those great soulful guys want her to sing with them.
“That’s the Way God Planned It” – Jeff Young sang and played keyboards, and then the band did “Keep on Growing,” but I got distracted by an emotional tableau over by the bar: silhouetted against a wash of magenta pink light, Bonnie was in a clinch with Delaney’s daughter Michele, both of them hugging, wiping away tears, with Bonnie waving a big lacy fan, hiding their faces from the crowd.
The Beehive Queen changed into a sparkly black pantsuit, and again knocked everybody’s socks off. Wish I could remember the song!
At intermission I ventured over to the star table to say hello again after 35 years. I was impressed by how Bonnie could completely shut out the clamouring pack of photo-snappers bearing down on her in the booth, yet still manage to greet everyone. When she wanted to screen, she just fanned. She’s a church lady at heart.
I met Michele Bramlett—another enthusiastic hugger— for the first time after our back and forth emails about the induction campaign; she introduced her daughter Dakota, Delaney’s granddaughter. They’ve both got Delaney’s eyes. I talked with Jaesen Kanter, who’s making a documentary on Delaney & Bonnie called “Mattilija Magic,” and found out the reason for the project’s delay: he and Michele, who’s a painter, are paying for it themselves. Big no-no; never invest your own money!
When the crush around Bonnie lightened up, I sat down in the booth with her and started to say, “Thirty five years ago, when Lady’s Choice came out,”— and didn’t get to finish the sentence; I got a big hug and in 30 seconds we’re in a rapidfire tête-a-tête. We’re both Scorpios: cut the small talk and get to the core.
That album was #3 of her 10 solo records; each one had some gems that should’ve had airplay. But back then, female singers (apart from disco queens) weren’t fave raves—people under 50 will have a hard time believing that—and record companies usually couldn’t be bothered pushing their albums. (Ask Bonnie Raitt.)
I said, “They didn’t know what to do with you.” She jumped on that: “’cause I was white and I sounded black! And I was glad I did. I’m proud of that.” She was right. No one else over here sounded like that; Dusty Springfield (I luuuv her singing) was in England, and even she didn’t have the full-tilt rock/gospel thing going.
When I told Bonnie I was going to help her and Delaney be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she was quick on the draw. “That’s Michele’s thing. That’s not how you get in there.” But you should be in there, I said; all your friends are. “I don’t care about fame. I don’t give a [complex profanity] about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When there’s a Rock & Roll Hall of Great, then I’ll care.” Some trash talk about the music business followed, which I agreed with; let’s just say that she’d tell certain people to do a certain thing, “that is, if I had one, and it would be a damn big one!”
Somewhere in here she introduced me to Levon Helm’s daughter; Delaney and Bonnie had been close to Levon, and his death really affected Bonnie.
Meanwhile “Delta Lady” was rocking along on stage, and we were talking about her early days, Janis Joplin, Ike and Tina Turner (she knew Tina when she was still Anna Mae). I can’t repeat some of the reminiscences—several of which contradicted what she told me decades ago, but back then she was on the record. She also talked about how people romanticize her relationship with Delaney, but in reality it included some things “They don’t have to know.” Two things about Bonnie: she’s got a mouth on her, and she’s also got a big heart. She’s protecting all the people she doesn’t even know, from reality. Preserving Delaney’s legacy as a musician.
That set off a memory. “I’m about to be overwhelmed again!” I handed her a Kleenex; she dabbed at her eyes. “It’s okay,” I patted her back.
She agreed. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay if people see us cry. Everybody has these feelings. We sing ‘cause we got a lot inside us. We have big emotions.” Hers certainly were all over the place that night. I can’t imagine what it was like: watching other people flash your life before your eyes, Delaney being so present in his absence, drinking when you shouldn’t be drinking, having conflicting emotions about the people who had the most influence on your career, remembering all the people in your “musical family” who are gone, being honored for what you did so long ago, while most of the public doesn’t know the solo work you were proud of, seeing people half your age following in but not filling your shoes… I signaled a hovering photographer to wait on taking a picture while she recovered. I knew I’d want a photo to go with the old one of us cracking up about something, but not this kind.
After a while, Amy came over to check in, and Bonnie told her to get in touch with Bekka because “You two have a lot in common.” Obviously a compliment, if you’ve heard Bekka Bramlett sing. Which brings me to, where was Bekka? I didn’t ask.
When Jaesen aimed the camera at us, I got a smile ready for the arm-around-each-other pal thing, but that wasn’t enough for Bonnie; she threw her arms around me in a bear hug and squished. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that photo, but I bet it’s a doozy.
After more scattered conversation—the expression “jumping bean” comes to mind—and a goodbye, I headed back to my table. One of the young guitarists (I say “young” because I’m not; who the hell knows how old he is), who looked like a young Kevin Bacon, was playing a ukulele. I heard “we were all alone and I’m singing this song for you,” and then Bonnie, impromptu, joined in. She just couldn’t sit still.
Next up: Denny Laine, hair dyed ridiculously black, took a crack at “Got this everlovin’ love for you.” Kinda rickety singing, but Bonnie was right next to him helping out. Off mic, she razzed him about singing the wrong words.
Theatre Within, the beneficiaries of this concert, stripped the concert info from their website pretty quickly, so I haven’t fact-checked, but from what I could hear, co-musical directors were Zev Katz and Rich Pagano (from the Fab Faux, as if that’s a credit), and John Leventhal is a Grammy winner. Pagano took the lead vocal on “Endlessly.” The second guitarist looked like a clean-cut 20-year-old Joe Perry. Okay, I know that’s hard to visualize. Maybe he was Shawn Pelton, maybe the other one was. The only player I recognized the minute he walked into the place was Lou Marini.
Tabitha Fair stepped up to render Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz,” presumably because she’s Native American, from Oklahoma. I don’t think the Cherokees were involved in the Alcatraz takeover, and some of the lyrics don’t make sense, considering what the reality of the takeover was, but she sure put every cell into it. It wasn’t until she really got possessed, letting out everything, that her voice became more resonant and less hard. That part was impressive.
Apparently the arrival center stage of James Maddock was supposed to be a BFD, but why, beats me. He blurted a moldy rock cliché, attempting to ignite a “Woooo!”, which maybe would’ve sounded outrageous back at Woodstock: “What the fuck am I doing here?!” Good question. He looked and sounded just goofy—drunk? Starstruck? I dunno. Hey, James: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. He sang “Bell Bottom Blues,” sharing guitar leads with Nouveau Kevin Bacon, who played a snazzy turquoise and white guitar (that’s the technical name: snazzy turquoise and white guitar); both guys singing together sounded very good.
Jim Keller took on Joe Cocker’s version of “The Letter.” He understands the feeling and phrasing of soul singing, but his voice is nothing unique. Then Creepy Guy “sang” (and I use the term loosely—very loosely) “Roll Away the Stone,” and I tried not to hear his voice, because I liked his electric piano work.
Denny Laine returned and told a story about Joe Cocker going incognito to a Sheffield pub, singing one of his songs, and being told, “You’re not as good as the real thing.” This led into “A Little Help from my Friends,” and his vocal was much better; he hasn’t forgotten how to rock. The song rests on the swell of the backup singers, but I gotta give Denny credit for the excellent big scream. And his pretty striated pink guitar (that’s also the technical name: pretty striated pink guitar).
Of course “Layla” was a big moment, and it was nervy of whoever decided to have Maddock deliver this one. He thinks he’s way too much The Man.
The finale was Bonnie’s choice: ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She was Baptist-preaching first, then singing, then inventing lyrics, telling a story about Delaney and Bonnie and friends; she invited Michele and Dakota up onstage to sing a couple of lines, since they were representing Delaney, but mostly Michele was dancing. By that time, Bonnie was hoarse, more shouting than singing, semi-coherent, and very emotional, but the line that’ll stick in my head for the next 35 years was when she sang that Delaney was “the best friend I ever had.” Then I was overwhelmed.
Get yourself overwhelmed:
- Sweet Bonnie Bramlett (CBS, 1973)
- It’s Time (Capricorn, 1975)
- Lady’s Choice (Capricorn, 1976)
- Memories (Capricorn, 1978)
- Step by Step (1981)
- I’m Still the Same (Audium, 2002)
- Roots, Blues & Jazz (Zoho, 2006)
- I can Laugh About It Now (Zoho, 2006)
- Beautiful (Rockin’ Camel, 2008)
- Piece Of My Heart – The Best Of 1969-78 (Raven, 2008)