By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 23, 2009
Blues-rock guitarist Sonny Landreth has found the perfect vehicle to express his southern Louisiana roots: his latest album, "From the Reach."
It's ostensibly a collection of collaborations with Landreth's fellow guitar heroes: Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson and Vince Gill. But Landreth found a way to make his songwriting and his upbringing as important as the jamming.
"I have mixed feelings about 'duet' albums with guest stars," Landreth says by phone from Louisiana. "On the one hand, the format has produced some brilliant moments, and when the magic's happening, that's what you want. On the other hand, the concept has been done so much that it's a bit of a cliche. Sometimes it can sound like it was too thought out in advance or that the collaborators left the stage without any inspiration taking place. I was looking to create a situation where the magic would happen."
To achieve that, Landreth, 57, says he avoided the temptation to jam with his collaborators on old standards or hits from their catalogues. Instead, he wrote new tunes with his guests in mind, refining the words and music to the kind of phrasing he imagined them using to make it easier for them to learn a new song and perform it with conviction. And because Landreth was writing the songs in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, storm imagery and the flavor of Louisiana inevitably found their way into the material.
"I had hung out with Mark [Knopfler] in New Orleans and had a lot of fun, and I knew he wrote that song 'Planet of New Orleans,' so I wanted to write a New Orleans song for him," Landreth says.
"Blue Tarp Blues," got its title from aerial photos of New Orleans homes patched with plastic sheeting after Katrina. When Knopfler heard the demo, he encouraged Landreth to move the middle verse about then-President George W. Bush's plane flying above the flooded city to the beginning of the song.
As a result, the song -- in fact, the album -- begins with Landreth singing, "Air Force One had a heck of a view, looking down on the patchwork of the blue tarp blues." Before long, Knopfler was answering every vocal line with his trademark weeping-guitar phrases.
A hurricane is also referenced in another song, "Storm of Worry," but this time the whirlwind is a metaphor for the damage caused by an unfaithful spouse. A wife who stays out all night, Landreth sings, will "shake the family tree, scattering the dreams we shared like fallen leaves." Creating the musical equivalent of such a storm are the guitars of Landreth and Clapton.
"I've been listening to Eric since I was a teenager," Landreth says, "so I wanted to get these songs just right. I liked the way 'Storm of Worry' makes the connection between natural events and relationships: outer storms and inner storms."
"When I Still Had You," another song Landreth wrote for Clapton, combines a country-music vocal with a blues guitar backing, a blend that Clapton has used on such hits as "Lay Down Sally" and "Tulsa Time." In fact, it was through Tulsa drummer Jamie Oldaker that the two guitarists met and discovered their mutual enthusiasm for blues and country.
The country connection is even more obvious on "The Goin' On," a song with another hurricane theme and featuring Nashville star Gill as both a duet vocalist and dueling guitarist. Gill is best known as a singer, but here he demonstrates why music insiders are just as impressed by his guitar chops. Gill also sings on "Blue Angel" with blues-rock guitarist Ford. The title comes from a nightclub in Lafayette, La., where Landreth first heard the man who helped launch his career, the late Clifton Chenier, the universally acclaimed king of zydeco.
"Several people have pointed out that Clifton might be my guardian angel, which is a very nice thought," Landreth says. "Growing up here and having Clifton take me under his wing, it was as if I'd been raised in Chicago and Muddy Waters had taken me under his wing. Clifton meant that much to music around here. I don't think of it as a religious song, because I'm not really religious. But spirituality does mean a lot to me; it's the real thing minus the dogma."
Sonny Landreth Appearing Wednesday at Rams Head Tavern (33 West St., Annapolis) and Thursday at the Barns of Wolf Trap (1635 Trap Rd., Vienna). Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets: Rams Head: $33.50; 410-268-4545 or http://www.ramsheadtavern.com/annapolis/onstage. The Barns: $24; 703-938-2404 or http://www.wolftrap.org. The Download: For a sampling of Sonny Landreth's music, check out: From "From the Reach": · "Blue Tarp Blues" · "Storm of Worry" · "Blue Angel" · "When I Still Had You" From "Levee Town": · "Levee Town" · "The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile" From "South of I-10": · "South of I-10" · "Congo Square"