Sonny Landreth,
Levee Town
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

If this isn't the best overall blues album of the year, it's damn well the best white blues album of the year. Sonny Landreth has always been a superior bluesman with a devil-granted guitar style and a singing voice dripping with Louisiana moss, and this outing is his most effective yet.

The title track that launches the album lets us know right away that this won't be a traditional twelve-bar album. Still, "Levee Town" is rich with the blues and thick with the swamp music sound. There are surprising chord changes from major to minor that startle our ears and give the song its edge. The evocative lyrics concern holding back the river, and those who expect something like "My baby left me, jes can't keep from cryin'" are going to find instead, "Sunlight blinking through the cypress knees / Lays shadow steps in front of Jacob and me / As if we're guided by the heavens' eye / On a ladder road down to the levee town." Landreth's guitar doesn't disappoint either. It isn't that his solos are blazingly fast (and they often are), but that they're so intelligently constructed, like the best jazz solos. There's still a lot of heart in his imspired creativity.

"This River" is a great rock-country blend, shy on solos, but when the writing is this good you don't even miss them. Zydeco takes center stage with "The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile," which gets off to a delightfully stuttering start before it hits its groove. There's fine accordion by Zydeco Joe Mouton to give the proper seasoning. "Love and Glory" offers a change of pace, a slow-moving Cajun style ballad beginning with acoustic guitar.

If you've been waiting for some low-down blues, "Broken Hearted Road" fills the bill. It's a conversational blues, and the conversation is continued by a raging guitar solo. "Spider-Gris" is the first of two instrumentals, and a perfect, gently rocking one it is. But beware -- Landreth's setting you up for the haunted house creepiness of "Godchild," a haunted house gem with the chorus, "Godchild, what makes you roam / Through the cracks in time and the walls of this home?" It's a real chiller about something "caught between worlds."

"Turning With the Century" is another blues rocker that further defines Landreth as the thinking person's blues artist. Who else refers to Richard Ford, Citizen Kane and Plato's Protagoras in their promo material? There's a lot of depth to his songs, both lyrically and musically. Landreth can still rock, as proven by "Z. Rider," another instrumental, powerful and energetic.

Bonnie Raitt joins him on "Soul Salvation," and it's a real treat, followed by "Angeline," which was co-written with Will Jennings. It's well done, with a cooking tenor sax and trumpet added to the mix, but it's also the most predictable and least interesting song musically. The album ends on a sublime note, with "Deep South," a loving paean to (duh) the deep south. It's a minor key, eerie gem that approaches transcendence. What better way to end than: "I tell you, Azalea / When they lay me down, child / I'll still be under the spell of / The sweet keep of the Deep South / The Deep South." Oh yeah.

You don't have to be a blues fan to love this album. It's filled with great songs, smartly written and brilliantly played, and Sugar Hill's packaging only sweetens the taste. Grab this one, then stir up some gumbo, open a beer, and prepare to get moved in several ways, all of them good.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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