Bonnie Bramlett – B.B King’s Blues Club (Nashville, TN)
There has always been a lingering question whether rock ‘n’ rollers could really mature gracefully, to go on and see their powers — still recognizable as their powers — ripened rather than rusted. It’s possible, definitely.
In this rare appearance close to home, Bonnie Bramlett’s astonishing new performance of just one song alone, one of her most famous, made the point.
“I’m 59, ” she said, “and this is a different song to me now.”
It was “Superstar”, co-written with Leon Russell long ago and far away. She’d always done it with infinitely greater emotional credibility and musicality than Karen Carpenter’s hit cover found; now it was half as fast as before, a wrenching soul ballad killer, a regretful dirge, which made full use of her growing strengths with the subtleties of jazz.
Delaney Bramlett, from whom she was divorced in the early ’70s, was mentioned throughout the evening with affection; here the references were different, and pointed. A soft harmonica was featured in the break, rather than a guitar, because, she said, the “guitar is gone.”
And when she sang, “You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby” she was remembering, now, someone who never stopped back — after decades — though it still matters desperately. The mounting effect was explosive, with the singer and the audience in tears at the end, yielding a genuinely awe-filled standing ovation.
Daughter Bekka Bramlett (a star in her own right, after years with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Burnette) was joyfully on hand for soulful vocal backing so close to her mother’s it sometimes verged on live voice doubling. Together they delivered a roof-shaking take on Eddie Hinton’s “Cover Me” and re-enlivened Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me”.
With Bonnie’s still-flexible voice a little huskier now, and with new vibrato added, her repertoire keeps jumping genres — everything from a Dinah Washington-style bit of jive with country ballad overtones (“I’m Hurt”) to some Bobby Bland soul blues to a rave-up finale on the Bramletts’ rock hit “Only You Know And I Know”. She waved a fan when the songs were hot, fluffed a hanky when they were cooler.
The tight band provided tasteful, effective backing throughout those tone and rhythm changes, with some notable sax fills from Tim Gordon. Friend Lee Roy Parnell stepped in to add some restrained and on-target blues guitar on several numbers, including “I Just Can’t Help Myself”, a punchy jive blues Delaney had written, too late, for Bonnie’s friend Janis Joplin.
But nothing this night begged to be taken as nostalgia; Bramlett had long since held her own with company like that. Greg Allman, Gram Parsons, Jimi Hendrix and James Jamerson had all jumped to back her; Eric Clapton and George Harrison had dropped everything to tour behind her as mere sidemen.
Now she delivered Harrison’s “Something” with great delicacy and soul, while laughingly recalling the day Delaney informed Harrison that his stay with their band was over: “You’re rich, George; go back to your own studio.”
Taking her shot at Julie London’s “Cry Me A River”, Bramlett reached that point in the song, in the closing chorus, where as a practical matter a pop singer generally needs to decide whether she’s still carrying a torch for the demeaning old flame being addressed, or is so far done with him that she’s ready now to taunt him, laugh right back. Bonnie managed to do both at once, clueing us in to the hurt while telling the fool to go cry his own river — the loser. Ripe rock ‘n’ roll!