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Sonny Landreth: Levee Town

C. Michael Bailey By

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For slide guitar enthusiasts, it doesn't get any better than this.

It is interesting that the finest slide guitarist playing would use a Louisiana Zydeco fare to display his considerable talent rather than its Mississippi cousin, the Blues, but that is exactly what Sonny Landreth does. In the same way that Jimi Hendrix goosed the evolution of playing the electric blues, has Landreth done for the slide guitar. Born in the Mississippi, the slide guitar has had an impressive list of exceptional practitioners from Robert Johnson and James Son House to Duane Allman, to Johnny Winter, to Lowell George, Ry Cooder, and Bonnie Raitt. But, with all respects, none have had the technical facility and wow that Sonny Landreth displays on this and his previous four recordings. There is something totally extraterrestrial about his superb playing that leaves my jaw slack.

The explanation of the 49 year old Landreth's Creole soul lies in the fact that he cut his teeth with the late Clifton Chenier, arguably the greatest Zydeco player ever, in the 1970s. He gained national prominence by replacing Ry Cooder in the slide guitar chair of John Hiatt's fine Bring The Family band that toured in support of that recording. He then struck out on his own, but in my opinion, has never garnered attention equal to his considerable and unique talent. But he always remained true to his Southwest Louisiana roots, extending the Zydeco vocabulary into the Pop and Rock realms.

Levee Town is Landreth's most fully realized project to date. It exists as the closing story in his trilogy of recordings that includes Down in Louisiana (Epic, 1993) and South of I-10 (Praxis/Zoo, 1995). On these discs, Landreth displays his truly innovate style of slide guitar where he simultaneously plays side and fingers the fretboard below the slide. This results in a cascade of notes that aurally appear to ripple. Through an ingenious use of slide harmonics and fingerings, Landreth easily sounds like multiple guitars. On the present recording, this effect is best experienced on the title cut, "This River", and "Spider-Gris". His attack in his solos is razor sharp and always perfectly placed. He has developed as a fine songwriter, often including clever Biblical imagery in the same way Robbie Robertson did for The Band (think "The Weight").

Landreth's production is a carefully layered one. A circumspectly constructed gumbo of guitar sounds characterizes Landreth's recording performances. Also distinctive of his style are his vocals. Criticized for having a "weak" voice, I believe many writers miss the point. Landreth's voice is neither stronger nor weaker than say, Eric Clapton's, in wake of their respective string talent. To his credit, Landreth does sharpen his vocals on Levee Town, and they come to a hard, sensual point on the lone blues, "Broken Hearted Road." Here, Landreth's voice becomes a molten mix with his guitar in the consummation of all edges of his talent meeting. If this disc has a center point, it is this song.

In the wake of the deluge of the popular yet malignantly mediocre offerings of FM radio, this is serious, essential music.


Track Listing: Levee Town; this River; the U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile; Love and Glory; Broken Hearted Road; Spider-Gris; Godchild; Turning with the Century; Z. Rider; soul Salvation; Angeline; Deep South. (Total Time: 55:59)

Personnel: Sonny Landreth: Guitars, Vocals; David Ranson: Bass; Michael Rogan: Drums; Steve Conn: Keyboards.

Title: Levee Town | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Sugar Hill Records


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