- Read about Sonny’s new album “Elemental Journey” here.
- Click here for Bud Scoppa’s “From the Reach” Sonny bio.
- “Inside the Slide,” Todd Mouton’s profile of Sonny written when “Levee Town” was released, can be read here.
Sonny Landreth’s 11th album, bearing the fittingly evocative title Elemental Journey, is something very different from the Louisiana slide wizard. Released on his own Landfall label on May 22, 2012, the new CD is Landreth’s first all-instrumental effort and his most adventurous work to date.
“From day one on the guitar, many genres of music have had an impact on me” says Landreth. “For these recordings, I drew from some of those influences that I hadn’t gone to on previous albums with my vocals. Trading off the lyrics this time, I focused solely on the instrumental side and all this music poured out. Then I asked some extraordinary musicians to help me layer the tracks in hopes of inspiring a lot of imagery for the listeners.”
Like its predecessor, From the Reach (2008), Elemental Journey features guest stars, in this case handpicked by Landreth for what each could bring to a particular aural canvas. Joe Satriani delivers an astonishing, ferocious solo on the audacious opener “Gaia Tribe,” the returning virtuoso Eric Johnson casts his seductive spell on the dusky dreamscape “Passionola” and steel drum master Robert Greenidge brings his magical overtones to the balmy, swaying “Forgotten Story.”
Drummers Brian Brignac, Doug Belote and Mike Burch, each of whom Landreth has worked with in the past, lend their particular feels to various tracks, working with Sonny’s longtime band members, bass player Dave Ranson and keyboardist Steve Conn. Tony Daigle, another key member of Sonny’s team, engineered and mixed the album, while Landreth produced.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about a good instrumental song is that it can be more impressionistic and abstract,” Landreth notes. “Though melody is always important, it’s even more significant with an instrumental. So what I wanted to achieve was something more thematic with lots of melodies and with a chordal chemistry that was harmonically rich. That’s when I got the idea to treat the arrangements with more layering and to have the melodies interweave like conversations. I also wanted it to be more diverse, to not adhere to any categories. I wanted to leave it wide open to possibility.”
The album blossoms forth with unexpected yet seamless juxtapositions. For example, Spanish moss atmospherics enwrap visceral bursts of rock and jazz on “Gaia Tribe,” and Sonny’s slide swoops and soars over a Jamaican-inspired groove with Greenidge’s Trinidadian pans on “Forgotten Story,” while “Wonderide” finds zydeco romancing classical.
“On ‘Wonderide,’ you can hear some of Clifton Chenier’s Creole influences and then it morphs into a classical motif with the strings playing more complex changes,” Sonny points out. “When I started experimenting with it, I realized that the tempo for a good zydeco groove could easily transition into the fingerpicking style of phrasing found in classical guitar music. Then it was a matter of adding the strings to give it more depth with tension and release, expanding the overall sound.”
Strings play a featured role on five of the pieces. The string arrangements by Sam Broussard — moonlighting from his gig as guitarist in Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys — are played by members of Lafayette’s own Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Mariusz Smolij, a world-renowned maestro. The strings are employed in a particularly inventive way wherever they appear on Elemental Journey, frequently embellishing the tunings that Landreth uses for slide guitar — “sometimes in unison like a horn section, sometimes as a legitimate quartet or full blown orchestra,” Sonny explains.
The concept occurred to him after Smolij invited him to perform with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra for a 2005 Christmas show for which he played Bach’s Cantata 140. “It was something I’d always wanted to do,” says Sonny. “I’d played the trumpet in school band and orchestra from grade school through college, so I was exposed to classical music and jazz, but I’d never played anything like that on slide guitar! So that really fired me up, and it became the backdrop for some of the classical influences on this album.”
There’s a particularly thrilling moment in the first track, “Gaia Tribe”, that occurs when two seemingly antithetical elements lock in an embrace. “When I first heard Joe’s solo,” Sonny recalls, “I went, ‘This is incredible! I love it but it just comes up out of nowhere — how am I gonna make it fit?’ After talking to Joe, I realized this was a great opportunity to raise the bar creatively. That’s when I got the idea to double the surprise factor and have the strings make their first appearance for the album in the middle of his solo. The next thing I know, a song that had started out as kind of a simple surf thing had become this wild ride of an epic piece and one of my favorite productions.”
Landreth’s music has always been evocative, a vibrant mixture of indigenous sounds and images informed by Delta blues and Faulkner alike. But here, by eschewing lyrics and vocals, he’s located something especially pure and unfettered. “What I’d hoped to end up creating was sonic stories without words,” he says. “And because there are no lyrics, it’s really important to connect on an emotional level. All of the titles for these songs have meaning for me — some of them are impressions from post-Katrina, Rita, the Gulf Spill, friends of mine and their experiences — so that’s part of it too. Still, I want listeners to feel something that resonates with them personally. I’ve always tried to make music that engages you on a deeper level that way.”
Prepare to be engaged . . . and transported.
From the Reach
“From the Reach,” Sonny Landreth’s ninth album, is the first to be released on his own Landfall label. On it, the Louisiana-based slide guitar wizard does something unprecedented in his body of work, as he collaborates with five of the greatest guitar players on the planet – Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson and Vince Gill – for some jaw-dropping performances. Also making a house call is legendary New Orleans pianist and singer Dr. John and iconic Gulf Coast troubadour Jimmy Buffett.
On the opener, “Blue Tarp Blues,” Sonny trades solos with Knopfler, and the aural contrast between Sonny’s shimmering slide and the Dire Straits leaders’ biting Strat is a textural treat. Clapton cuts loose on the following “When I Still Had You,” adding his soulful voice to the choruses as well. Slowhand then wails on “Storm Of Worry”, a spooky slow blues reminiscent of his Bluesbreakers era.
“The Milky Way Home” is a powerful instrumental rocker that features Eric Johnson on delectably distorted guitar passages that morph into his trademark violin-like sound. “The Goin’ On” shifts into a country rock groove, with Vince Gill and Sonny alternating guitar solos and lead vocals. Robben Ford brings his soulful tone and phrasing to “Way Past Long” and “Blue Angel (the latter with Gill on backing vocals), as Landreth swaps his trusty Strat for a Les Paul. Each of these performances is an extraordinary showcase of brilliant players reacting to each other in supremely inspired fashion.
“I’ve wanted to make this kind of record for a long time – to do an entire album that would feature some of my favorite players as special guests,” says Landreth, who’s as articulate as he is virtuosic. “And after all these years, I’ve gotten to become friends with them, so that addressed the question of, who do you ask? Every one of them wanted to do it, so that really fired me up.”
“The other thing was how to do it without it being yet another clichéd ‘duets’ album,” he continues. “Then I got the idea to write the songs specifically for each of the artists and that was the real hook for me, as a writer as well as a guitar player. I grew up listening to Eric and Mark, and these other players have influenced me along the way. Not only that, but we all came up listening to a lot of the same music, so we had common ground to work with. Once someone would say yeah, then I had to come up with songs that were worthy of them.”
Landreth spent a year writing these songs, and another year putting the album together—a logistical feat of some magnitude considering the fact that every one of the principals, including Landreth, spends considerable time on the road. The process for most of the recording involved two stages. After Landreth had a particular song written, he went in the studio with his band and longtime engineer Tony Daigle and completed the basic tracks, leaving space for the guests. Daigle then sent his mix of the tune to the guest to contribute his or her parts. (The exceptions were the tracks with Gill, which were cut face to face in Nashville, and the one featuring Dr. John, which was recorded in New Orleans.)
“I’d get back these fantastic solos, and I’d go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta re-cut mine!” Sonny recalls with a laugh. He’s exaggerating, but he did take a second pass at a couple of his parts.
The final stereo mixes feature Landreth on the left and the other players on the right. “We did it to tap into the conversational aspect of it,” Sonny points out. Current technology brought virtually unlimited flexibility to the recording process, but in the end what matters is that the performances truly feel in the moment—even if that moment was actually separated by time and physical distance.
“That was of course the goal with these performances,” Sonny confirms. “They’ve gotta feel right. I was going for the essence of what about these fabulous musicians inspired me to begin with, and that’s what I honed in on. I was able to go, ‘This sounds like a lick he would do,’ and then write that into the arrangement. The guests then had a chance to flesh the concepts out. I really wanted to make sure we captured each of their individual voices on the guitar, and I feel like we did that.”
In one of two delightful changes of pace to the album’s six-string focus, Dr. John brings the requisite gris-gris to “Howlin’ Moon” with his trademark rollicking piano and harmonies, on which he’s joined by Jimmy Buffett. “Although the central idea of the record was playing with my guitar heroes, I wanted to be open to the unexpected as well,” Sonny explains. “I’d written ‘Howlin’ Moon’ a long time ago, and I always had Dr. John in mind for it. Then we took it a step further with Jimmy’s vocal and the vibe was perfect.”
As for the rest, “Let It Fly,” a slice of exotica so warm that sweat drips off it, features backing vocals from Buffett discovery Nadirah Shakoor. The title of “Uberesso,” a blistering instrumental from Landreth and his band, was inspired by Sonny’s passion for espresso. The album closes with the metaphysical ballad “Universe,” as Gill adds his glorious voice to the goosebump finale.
Anchoring the grooves is Landreth’s touring rhythm section featuring longtime musical partner Dave Ranson on bass and Mike Burch on drums. Steve Conn, another regular, is on keyboards. Sam Broussard plays acoustic guitar on “Universe” and “Let It Fly.”
As for the intriguing album title, “I thought about it a lot,” says Sonny. “One of the most interesting things to me in the songwriting process is letting it cook and bubble and see what comes up to the top. As I was writing these songs, the word ‘reach’ kept coming up, and ‘reach’ is a pretty powerful word. Aside from the obvious meanings, it can refer to a body of water. And the water imagery kept appearing as well, so it’s like this is what came up out of this whole project for me. What would happen if I invited all these people; where would this take me? I literally reached out to them, and they graciously came on board. Then there was the impact locally of Hurricane Katrina. So the title is the result of all of the above. It’s coming from an honest place.”
The same could be said of everything this one-of-a-kind artist has done in his single-minded career.
-- Bud Scoppa
Inside the Slide
Bassist Dave Ranson was one of the first to be blown away by Sonny Landreth’s six-string prowess. He was 12 or 13, and he went to a Lafayette party where the budding virtuoso, a whole year older, was playing with his band.
"He might’ve been 14, maybe even 15. I know I wasn’t drivin’," Ranson recalls, thinking it was a tune by The Ventures he first heard coming from the youthful combo. "We just went, ’Wow! These guys are good.’"
More than 30 years later -- in cities around the globe -- Ranson observes the ripple effect night after night from his onstage position as Landreth’s musical alter ego. "You see people just standing there with their mouths open," he says. "It’s really great."
After shows, witnesses have been known to tell the bassman, "I play a little slide guitar, but after hearing him, I’m going home and break all my slides." "If I’ve heard that once," Ranson relates, "I’ve heard that a million times."
Fans of Landreth’s soulful sound -- and anyone who wants to find out what all the fuss is about -- can catch up with "king of slydeco," Ranson and drummer Michael Organ on "Levee Town." Landreth’s Sugar Hill debut is his first solo outing in five years, and the disc offers ready confirmation that there’s much more than just jaw-dropping technique behind the glass of the bandleader’s slide.
The album opens with a mythic tale of an Atchafalaya Basin flood and pulls roots influences from Clifton Chenier to Duane Allman through tales of zydeco rides, romance and the mysterious allure of the Deep South.
"Levee Town" offers brilliantly produced readings of a dozen original tunes, all colored by Landreth’s unique gifts as sonic painter. His guitars, vocals and lyrics speak in rhythmic slurs by turns floating and biting. From the acoustic-electric bottleneck blues of "Broken Hearted Road" to the ethereal pulse of "Love and Glory," the disc is the culmination of decades of musical innovation and what nearly everyone interviewed for this piece identified as a core issue: finding your own voice.
Meet the neighbors
Writing the title cut trigged a circle of inspiration for the 50-year-old songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, bandleader and producer.
"That’s the first time that I actually wrote a song where when I got through with it, it sparked a whole concept," Landreth says. "I had a concept of an album of these story songs. And I had this whole idea about a setting in and around a fictitious town based on those in our area, about all these characters, about them and their experiences in and around this town. And it just seemed to offer a lot of potential."
Landreth was born in Canton, Miss., and moved to Lafayette as a kid, and his Faulknerian vision offers listeners "something to sink their teeth into. And I really wanted to stretch the seam with the solo sections of the songs, and with the narrative form of the songs. What that amounts to for me is a lot more words. But there’s a cadence to that, there’s a rhythm to that."
And that rhythm sends John Hiatt’s "designated driver" on a tour of tales and aural textures that mixes the influence of The Band with the rattlesnake rhythms of zydeco, the swagger of swamp pop and a floating Cajun waltz.
The trio comes out blasting on the title cut, which features Hiatt on backing vocals and a two-minute outro guitar solo, one of several such eruptions on the disc. The first single, "This River," follows, crackling to life with a percussive acoustic guitar lick, Ranson’s fluid bass lines and Landreth’s dueling electric guitar riffs. From there, the record runs through roots rockers, ballads and a pair of full-tilt instrumentals, picking up backing vocalists Herb Pedersen and Jennifer Warnes early on, and closing out with saxophonist Jon Smith and trumpeter Steve Howard on two cuts.
The middle section of the record features cameos from Bonnie Raitt (who backs Landreth’s vocal on the swaying "Soul Salvation") and fiddler Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil and Traiteurs accordionist Errol Verret, who are paired on the gorgeous "Love and Glory." But the album’s core sound comes from the power trio completed by Ranson and Organ and powerfully augmented by longtime friend and keyboardist Steve Conn.
Raitt describes Landreth’s fifth "official" release as a "killer record by one of the most astonishing guitarists I know. I’m a huge fan of Sonny’s singing and writing as well as his slide playing and am thrilled he asked me to be part of the record. Let’s hope this one finally gets him riding the acclaim he so deserves."
The album is Landreth’s first since 1995’s "South of I-10," and it ably mixes co-producer Mike Post’s interest in "widening the street" with co-producer R.S. Field’s mojo hand.
“Turning With The Century"
When nearly two years of touring wound down in 1996, Landreth had only two new tunes written and needed to regroup. Session work with a variety of artists, writing and a 10th anniversary reunion with Hiatt & The Goners all piled on the plate, and "Levee Town" began rolling down a serpentine road from La. to L.A. and back again.
Sessions with friend, noted TV soundtrack producer and longtime Louisiana music fan Mike Post led to an invitation to begin work on the record at his studio on the Left Coast. "We mixed six of the tunes and the consensus was that we’d just gone a little too far from the center," Landreth explains. The Breaux Bridge-based slideman decided to bring the project home, reuniting with Field, who co-produced Landreth’s two previous albums, and ace engineer Tony Daigle, another longtime collaborator.
The tribe set out to re-mix a couple of cuts and work on the rootsier side of the record at Dockside Studios in Maurice. "Tony has a great sense about what works and what doesn’t, and he’s also a musician, so he has great ears. He’s really helped me to hone my sound in the studio over the course of countless projects."
The resulting hybrid album showcases several significant Post contributions, among them the half-time feel on the verses of the rocker "Turning With The Century" and the Dixieland "tailgate" rhythm of "Angeline." The record also offers seamless shifts into the double-clutchin’ sound of "The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile" and the blistering blues of "Broken Hearted Road."
Landreth says his goal is "just to always keep pushing it. I could say, well, I’m a blues guitar player, so I’ll make blues albums for the rest of my life.. And that’s a beautiful thing, that’s where my heart is. But I sort of hear the call of the wild, you know. It’s when you really get into seeing where something can take you -- it’s like the writing process, it’s the same thing with discovering new techniques and new sounds, and going in different directions with the actual performing end of it on guitar."
Much of Landreth’s inspiration this time around was literary & Joseph Campbell, Richard Ford, Jane Roberts, Darryl Bourque, even The Portable Plato. Armed with his talent for getting inside songs and leading a band, Landreth worked on the new disc while touring and recording with Hiatt and simultaneously beginning "Levee Town’s" follow-up projects, which include a collection of original blues tunes and an all-instrumental outing.
Buckwheat Zydeco says, "Talent and personality, that goes hand-in-hand," and Landreth’s bandmates are quick to explain that his gifts extend far beyond the world of music.
Journeyman drummer Organ signed on for a three-week tour in ’95 and has been part of the team ever since. "The thing about Sonny is he’s a great artist, he’s a great musician and a great songwriter. And when he puts something down it’s going to have it’s own identity, it’s own pulse, it’s own phrasing." But, the California-based drummer adds, longtime partners Landreth and Ranson both leave room for him to find his own voice and become part of the music with them.
"Sonny has perhaps been my biggest influence, musically and personally," Louisiana-to-Tennessee transplant Conn adds. The man behind some of the most intricate chord changes he’s ever heard, he says, is "very concerned with the way everyone is treated, from the big fish down to the tadpoles. That’s very important to me. He has always done a lot of things in his life that I just talked about, and seeing him actually live it has really affected me. Sure, he’s a musical genius, but that is not as important to me in the long run, and it won’t be important to any of us at the final bell."
The pair met 25 years ago, and have played together ever since. "He hears the whole song," Conn says, noting that during a session for his "River of Madness" disc, Sonny wrote a chart with nothing other than the letter A on it.
"You come up with a lick and that’s really cool," Landreth explains. "And you can put it down on tape, and that’s cool too. But to take it to the next step there has to be something behind it. Not like it has to shake the world, and it’s not like you have to make a big statement, but it’s coming from someplace. ’Cause I know for me -- and especially with instrumentals -- the whole time I was growing up I would hear something that really would just draw me in and it would immediately make a mental image or a picture. That’s a real intimate experience, and I think music is that for people."
Playing bottleneck -- and exploring the chordal tunings that accompany the style -- offered Landreth a chance to find his own voice on the instrument, an otherworldly burst of sound that channels all kinds of melody and percussion instruments.
His trademark slur, he says, emanates from time spent as a schoolboy trumpeter. "The phrasing that comes about from having to take a breath has its own warmth -- to me that makes it very vocal. And by slurring you make the most of the phrase and it ends up behind the beat: you anticipate it sometimes and you’re on the back of it other times. You elongate even that one beat. If something tastes really good, you can either just scarf it down or you can take your time and reeeaaaaallly stretch the moment."
Landreth’s rhythmic feel comes from native influences, especially time spent on the bandstand with another great channeler of styles, late zydeco king Clifton Chenier. "There’s rhythm in this area that we draw from we don’t even think about. It’s by osmosis, it’s part of our daily routine. My attempt to emulate that -- when I was actually consciously thinking in terms of rubboard or fiddle or accordion -- that desire pushed me to discover some of the new sounds and new ideas and those techniques. And I think it’s just the sound of a frustrated wanna-be on several other instruments."
When Landreth discovered a way to play behind the slide -- allowing fretted strings to pass beneath the glass and combine with the sound of the strings touching the slide -- a world of possibilities were opened to him.
"He called me up one day and was just all pumped-up telling me about that," Atchafalaya Basin resident Ranson remembers. "He was really excited. And then when I heard it, I saw why."
One thing led to another, and Landreth began developing a vocabulary of techniques and tunings to expand his unique vision. Since that time, the frustrated multi-instrumentalist has found ways for his playing to suggest a range of instruments being played simultaneously.
"Sonny plays with all that technique and still with just so much soulful feeling," Ranson opines. "And a lot of technique players, they just lose that. Sonny lacks neither."
Dobro ace and six-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas concurs. "I think that the reason he sounds so different is ’cause of where he’s from. I can hear fiddles a lot in his playing, just from the way he raises the notes. Slide is just another voice you can have. You can really make a guitar sound like a person, and he knows what that’s about."
Perhaps what’s most amazing is that so much of Landreth’s sound -- which integrates rhythm and lead lines as well as a wide palette of instrumental colors -- comes primarily from the action of his hands on the strings, long before the signal even sees the sweating tubes of an amp’s power section. Through fingerpicking and a combination of palm and thumbpick techniques, Landreth alternately coaxes ghostly overtones and roaring, full-throated harmonies from his instrument.
Coming across these discoveries has further fueled his quest. "That’ s the nature of inspiration. Once you experience that, you want it again, like a lot of things in life. And you should always think in terms of ’Well, if that happened, then what else is there?’ I think it’s when you quit asking questions you’ll quit finding answers. I mean you really have to open yourself up to the possibility of the moment and what that can bring."
Landreth’s attempt to capture his most inspired performances led him to record a good bit of "Levee Town" in his home, in between studio sessions. "You wanna get it right before that part where you know it too much. There’s just something about being on the edge. You’re in this space where it’s a gray area, you’re sort of flying by the seat of your pants for inspiration and you either fly or you fall by what you come up with. But when you really nail it, when you really ride that, when you really feel it, that’s the magic. If you go back and try to recapture that, it’s impossible. I’ve never been able to do that, not completely."
"It’s a lifelong goal to be able to achieve that, to be able to tap into it whenever you want to and to be able to hold on to it. It’s like you’re not trying to analyze it while you’re in the heat of the moment, but you’re focused in a different way, and it’s more instinct, it’s more inspiration."
"I read one time, John McLaughlin said this: ’Your role is to play to inspire yourself and your fellow musicians and others.’ And it’s like a wheel, it’s like one thing does lead to another and one thing inspires the other."
It’s just like the flood headed for Levee Town, and you better watch out for forces of nature. They just might change your life.
-- Todd Mouton
© 2000 Todd Mouton. All rights reserved. Many thanks to OffBeat and The Times of Acadiana, who first assigned and published versions of this piece.