Sonny Landreth,
The Road We're On
(Sugar Hill, 2003)

In the world of rock, blues, jazz and even world music, slide guitar playing has had its share of masters. In America, the form was most significantly popularized by seminal bluesmen like Tampa Red, Blind Willie McTell, Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Blind Willie Johnson. After the blues plugged in in the 1950s and '60s, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Hound Dog Taylor, Earl Hooker and Robert Nighthawk took slide guitar playing to rocking, louder new levels.

It was mainly this last category of electric slide guitar players that young white musicians of the '60s and '70s latched onto and sought to emulate. An elite legion of new slidemen arose: Mick Taylor, Rory Gallagher, Pete Haycock, Johnny Winter, Mark Andes, Joe Walsh, Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Jeremy Spencer and others, each in their own way becoming a master of the form. However, most electric-rock slide-slingers stuck relatively close to the stylistic roots and rules established by the bluesmen who'd inspired them. Few had really taken the form to the experimental heights to which someone like Jimi Hendrix had elevated standard, fretted electric 6-string playing.

Then came Sonny Landreth.

Cutting his teeth in various Louisianna honky-tonk and bar bands and performing with zydeco king Clifton Cheneir, Landreth first gained national attention in the 1980s on songwriter John Hiatt's album Slow Turning. Since then he has appeared as a guest on dozens of other releases, as well as releasing nine or more masterful albums of his own. Whereas most slide guitarists will finger chords in a traditional "standard guitar" style and then do lead work by sliding their glass or metal slide bars across the strings of the guitar, Landreth reinvented the rules by combining the two techniques, simultaneously sliding along the strings as he frets the notes. Along the way, he will often tap and chime the strings with his picking hand, slide bar or electronic Ebow, creating glimmering, impossible-sounding sonic textures.

The Road We're On continues Landreth's investigations into and reinventions of the blues that began with 2002's Levee Town. Most of the songs were recorded "live in the studio" with his band. Longtime tour mate Dave Ranson plays bass. Brian Brignac and Mike Burch alternate on drums. Steve Conn plays keyboards on three cuts. Other musicians guest on several tracks, but for the most part, aside from a few tasty National acoustic guitar overdubs, Landreth sticks to his tried-and-true guitar-bass-drums trio format. The sessions were beautifully recorded at Electric Comoland Studio near Landreth's home in Lafayette, La., crisply engineered and mixed by co-producer Tony Diagle.

The CD opens with "True Blue," a medium-tempo New Orleans-style blues shuffle, and moves into the faster-paced, more rockin' "Hell at Home." Landreth delivers a rare acoustic slide solo for this second number before kicking in with some ferocious, cranked up "woman-toned" electric guitar.

Next up is "All About You," an amped-up New Orleans funeral march. For the solo, Landreth reachs deep into his mojo bag of licks and techniques, scorching the Louisiana swamps with his snarling, distorted guitar tones. The slower, waltz-like blues temp of "A World Away" cools things back down a bit, at least tempo-wise. Tonally, Landreth keeps the burner on high, delivering a snaky lead tone that pays tribute to Chicago bluesman Otis Rush's Cobra Records blues classic, "As the Years Go Passing By."

Typical of a beau who grew up near New Orleans, Landreth doesn't let his musical gumbo simmer for too long before stoking up the fires again with "Gone Pecan," a hot-toned zydeco boogie. The number that follows, "Natural World," features a shimmering, denser blend of acoustic and electric guitar sounds reminiscent of songs from Landreth's early solo releases, Outward Bound and South of I-10. A heady hit of carefully crafted swamp-rock, it's probably my favorite track on the CD.

The New Orleans voodoo street-beat is back for "The Promise Land," then Landreth eases us back into the swamps with the spooky, ethereal minor chords of "Fallin' for You."

If Sonny Landreth is a national treasure among slide players, he might also be one of our best "standard" 6-string electric guitarists. For the next track, he sets the slide down for awhile and tells us the story of "Ol' Lady Luck" in a sad, sweet, bluesy cajun waltz. "Gemini Blues" is a straight blues shuffle -- T-Bone Walker on Bourbon Street. More non-slide, single-string style leads follow with the album's title track. "The Road We're On" is one of the tastiest servings on the CD, a feast of meaty tone, dished out hot and heaped high on the plate.

Landreth brings things back home for the CD's closing number, "Juke Box Mama," the sole all-acousic track on the CD. As the track fades away, I found myself wishing that, despite my admiration for his electric tone and technique, I'd just love to see Landreth release an "unplugged" album one of these days.

All in all, The Road We're On serves as an example to just about every blues band out there that there's something more to shoot for than the time-honored but frankly cliched barroom sound. With his innovative ideas, imaginative arangements and strong songwriting, Landreth is keeping the art of blues guitar playing and songwriting alive and growing.

By the way, I dig his voice, too.

- Rambles
written by Timothy Truman
published 24 July 2004

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