MINNEAPOLIS — Steve Raitt won’t be joining his little sister Bonnie onstage at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday. He won’t be doing wheelies backstage in the parking lot. But he will be there in spirit.
Raitt, a longtime Twin Cities sound engineer and producer, died in April of brain cancer. This will be Bonnie’s first visit to her second favorite state since then.
“I’m sure it will be very, very emotional to come through and see all of his friends,” said Raitt, who recorded her debut album in the Twin Cities in 1971. “It will be a celebration of the way he was considered in Minnesota. It will be poignant, but it will be celebratory as well.”
Knowing this would be an emotional tour, Raitt hooked up with an old friend, Taj Mahal. They’ve known each other since the early 1970s but they’ve never toured together. Since each had completed promotional treks for their most recent albums, Raitt thought it an ideal time to hit the road together.
“It’s alone and together,” said Mahal in a joint interview before the Bontaj Roulet Tour started this month.
“It’s a whole set of Taj and a whole set of me,” Raitt picked up. “And Taj comes out in the middle of my set, and we do some acoustic stuff and then both bands come out for a big blowout at the end for a half hour or more.”
On this tour, Mahal, 67, has been known to wear suits instead of his more familiar colorful African and Caribbean outfits.
“I haven’t worn one for a long time but I look pretty good in a suit,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s intimidating,” said Raitt, 59, “but when he starts shaking his hip, it’s still Taj.”
She vividly recalls their first encounter when she opened for him in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the early 1970s: “I was at my soundcheck at Skidmore College and he came and played the other part of the rockin’ blues I was doing. I was nervous as hell and I kind of passed the test. He reached out his hand and said, ‘Taj Mahal.’” Mahal served as co-producer of her third album, “Takin’ My Time,” in 1973.
“To have the great Taj Mahal play on my record made my cool factor go up about 50 miles,” she said. “Taj played with the guys from Little Feat and (drummers) Earl Palmer and Jim Keltner. It’s still, to this day, one of my favorite albums.”
In November, Raitt will turn 60, and she’s not even blinking.
“I’m proud and healthy and strong and firing on all cylinders,” she said. “To have one of the greatest jobs in the world and make money doing it and to support the people we do and the causes and give something back, man, I’m so grateful to stand up here at 60. My dad (Broadway star John Raitt) was singing till he was 88. I hope we’re doing Bontaj when we’re 90.”
“Hey, 101,” Mahal said, upping the ante.
Raitt is excited about returning to the fair for her sixth performance, her first with Twin Cities keyboardist Ricky Peterson in her band.
“He’s a riot, and he just plays his butt off,” she said. “Plus, Ricky and I could really grieve together (about Steve Raitt) and that was really helpful.”
Raitt had one previous extraordinarly emotional experience at the state fair, in 1990, the night after her friend, guitar hero Stevie Ray Vaughan, died in a helicopter crash.
“That was deep,” she recalled. “I’ve had a lot of people pass since then, and you have to go to work in the middle of it. It’s not that you ever get used to it, but you do know you can get through it. It becomes a source of inspiration.”
Raitt misses her big brother. “Every time I hear James Brown or think about whether the bass is too loud, I can’t without thinking of Steve,” she said. “I know it won’t be the same without Steve. We’ll dedicate the show to him. We’ll get through it. I’ll miss my brother doing wheelies in the (backstage) parking lot in his ‘65 GTO, but we’ll send him a love song in spirit.”