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Sonny Landreth: Sonny Landreth: Bound By the Blues

C. Michael Bailey By

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Fresh Cream (Atco) was released in 1966, at the height of the blues revival that began in the late 1950s with the publication of Samuel Charter's The Country Blues (Rinehart, 1950) and the subsequent release of the LP The Country Blues (Folkways, 1959). In the early blues revival, it was the rural, acoustic blues that were resurrected and celebrated. Then the ancient-by-any-standards folk songs made it to Great Britain, they were assimilated and recreated in a sonic image not previously imagined. Cream introduced America and the world to the future of the blues in their release of "Spoonful." Credited to Chicago musician and A&R man Willie Dixon, "Spoonful" and written for Howlin' Wolf (Chess, 1960) harbored much older historic music significance dating to some 40 years earlier.

Dixon's (and, by proxy, Cream's) "Spoonful" was based on "A Spoonful Blues," recorded by Charley Patton in 1929 (Paramount 12869). Patton's rendition was related to the earlier recordings: "All I Want Is A Spoonful" by Papa Charlie Jackson (1925) and "Cocaine Blues" by Luke Jordan (1927). The lyrics are a clever and earthy allegory for the Y-chromosome's sometimes violent search to satisfy their animal hungers, with "a spoonful" representing pleasures, which have been interpreted as sex, love, or drugs.

The way we heard the blues, indeed all music, changed dramatically with Eric Clapton's screaming electric guitar, propelled by Ginger Baker's throbbing drums and bassist Jack Bruce's low foundations and vocals. If that change was not fully understood at the time, Cream drove their musical point home with four minutes of near rock perfection in "Crossroads," performed live at San Francisco's Winterland in the fall of 1968 and released on Wheels of Fire (Atco) the same year. This was an exciting, loud, carnal, earthy sound that fully defined the blues soul of rock and roll. Fresh, new, alarming, and redefining: we were not prepared for such low country virtuosity.

Fresh, new, alarming, and redefining... that is exactly how I hear Sonny Landreth play "Key to the Highway" from the present Bound by the Blues. Landreth's 20-second introduction to the Charlie Segar nine-bar blues standard sonically evolves into a rippling surface of simmering mercury, bright and uniquely innovative. It is unlike any blues before, sounding as jarringly potent as "Spoonful" did nearly 50 years ago. Viscerally, the performance and, post particularly the second solo into the coda, can only be experientially approximated to that first teenaged kiss (again, from the Y-chromosome perspective): bottle rockets, Roman candles and strawberries bursting on the roof of your mouth. You never knew things could be so good. And the great thing is, there is plenty more of such music on the recording.

After slide guitarist Sonny Landreth's recent flirtation with naked technique worship on Elemental Journey (Landfall Records, 2012), he safely returns to the blues fold with an incendiary musical statement containing the next chapter in his one-man evolution of the slide guitar craft. This is not a perfect recording, but it contains moments of perfection: perfection of the electric blues ilk heard from the Allman Brothers Band on "Statesboro Blues" and "One Way Out."

This is a recording of contrasts. Landreth's performance of the blues "standards" contained herein is redefining. Leading a traditional power trio, Landreth turns the volume up on pre-war acoustic blues, demonstrating that he can safely transform any material he takes on. The bold choice of Skip James' "Cherryball Blues" shows Landreth's fearless approach to the music, retaining even the original vocal inflections. His slide guitar is played "out-or-the-box" on this difficult Bentonia blues piece. "Walkin's Blues" and "It Hurts Me Too" historic slide guitar standbys are revelatory. "Dust My Broom" might be considered the weakest piece on a recording of superb sounds.

Landreth's original compositions show great growth. His vocals, a soft spot in the past, are confident and vibrant (remember, Eric Clapton's "lackluster" vocals were criticized when he started out). Landreth saves is steel-body guitar playing for these songs. The title piece is inventive with a searing electric slide interlude. "The High Side" is a bit of country funk, sweaty and humid like the banks of the Tallahatchie River in a Delta August. The guitarist's tribute to the late Johnny Winter, "Firebird Blues" is the best song on the recording. Landreth's slide approaches the single-note apocalypse of Derek Trucks' playing while his intermingled standard lead-guitar playing is superlative. Hardly abandoning his Creole roots, Landreth closes the disc with a Zyedeco rave-up, "Simecoe Street."

This is the disc that Landreth has been working up to for his existing career. He is an innovator on the order of an Eddie Van Halen who is beginning to gather disciples.

Track Listing: Walkin' Blues; Bound By The Blues; The High Side; It Hurts Me Too; Where They Will; Cherry Ball Blues; Firebird Blues; Dust My Broom; Key To The Highway; Simcoe Street.

Personnel: Sonny Landreth: vocals, guitars; David Ranson: bass, vocals; Brian Brignac: drums, percussion, vocals.

Title: Sonny Landreth: Bound By the Blues | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Provogue Records

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