Posted June 2017
I gotta tell you a true story. I first became aware of blues great, Sonny Landreth, when received a review copy of his CD, Elemental Journey, before it was released. I had it in my car when I was picking up Andy Timmons to head out to see Boston in concert. The disc was playing when he got into the car and the first words out of his mouth was, “Great tone!” and he didn’t even know it was Landreth. Even without Andy’s enthusiastic endorsement, I became an immediate fan.
So, when the opportunity recently presented itself to chat with Sonny, a) I immediately and eagerly agreed; and, b) I started our chat by mentioning the story, above, to which he said:
“That’s a great sign. I like that! That’s cool. That’s really cool.”
The main purpose of our chat was to discuss Sonny’s latest live CD entitled, Sonny Landreth Recorded Live In Lafayette. I asked if I had counted correctly that this was his seventeenth album and second live disc, to date.
“Uh, the first number is kind of a gray area. It’s kind of a tough question. But, yeah, it’s the second live album. There’s been various incarnations of some really old stuff. If you count all those incarnations, it adds up to more than it actually is. Ah, it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re all out there, I’m glad to know that.”
I was curious as to why this album and why Lafayette.
“Well, Lafayette because advantage of proximity and resources here. The venue, first of all, is downtown. It’s a beautiful place. It was designed for performance arts. Real nice theater. I played there with a bunch of other people in other shows. And we’ve played there with our band with some gigs. So, there’s that and it’s set up really well for production.
“My engineer is only a few blocks away. Some of the other players are real close. Some just down the road. So, we would pull all our resources in the way of gear an being able to get back and forth. And, really, there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed at night and, at least, take the discomfort factor out of it. And it also enabled us to get in and have different nights – more than just one night. We went in on Monday and set up and did sound check and went through the songs with our guest artists. Then we recorded Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at the end of January with the idea of getting the best out of all of that. So, that was the deal with the venue.
“And it felt like a good time to do this in terms of a retrospective album with a body of work over the years and different time periods in my career. I’d been thinking about doing the acoustic thing but I didn’t know if I wanted to just to do that or do some of my trio like we typically do. I knew that I wanted to get a couple of my close friends – Sam Broussard and Steve Conn. We’ve never done that together – just the three of us like that. We just ended up doing all of it. I can’t really say I planned it that way but once we got into it – well, I should back up a little bit.
“We booked a number of shows going into the recording days that was really important to get a head of steam going and to sort of sort some things out, musically. So, that helped to have a little bit of an edge. As that progressed -and as the set kind of evolved – then that helped me determine kind of what we were going to do as a concept and which songs and so forth – in particular, with the acoustic material; sort out which ones worked and would bring a different version that we have done before. So, I think the end result is – I hope that it’s something that fans and people are familiar with our work will appreciate the diversity of it and the different versions of these songs and they were played. And, also, I think for someone that’s never heard us before and heard any of my songs, I think it’s a good introduction, as well.”
Which cut would you point to as a calling card, if you will, for this album?
“Well, that’s a little bit of a tricky call because what ended up happening, in a way, is two albums in one. Like I was explaining earlier, the end result was we would come out and do a set – an all acoustic, take a short break, then go out and do the electric material. What that involved in terms of production was setting up the acoustic instruments in front of the backline that we normally use for playing the electric songs, so that was really cool. Having done that, it helped set up for production when we cut into the album.
“So, I’d have to pick one song from each of those, I guess would be the best thing. And, probably, Blues Attack – and that’s kind of what we led off with on the acoustic disc. And, then, on the electric, I would have to probably pick Bayou Teche, which is the first one, because all of us played on it, including our guest artists and sort of embodies the spirit of it, I think, in a good way.”
Regarding if there anything unique about recording this album compared to the other live work he’s recorded, Landreth responded:
“Yeah. Absolutely! Just the very fact that we had two completely different experiences with the acoustic and the electric. That took some work and it brings up a whole different vibe and the dynamics of the room. That was different because before Grant Street’s an old warehouse and your sound’s bouncing off the brick. It’s real cool live, edgy sound where this was a real nice venue tailored for sonics and was a completely different feel and vibe to it than Grant Street. Also, as we got into the third night, we noticed how the crowd got more and more into it even though it was a lot of different people each night, be that as it may. Maybe because it was closer to the weekend, people were ready to let loose more. I don’t know but most of what we kept was from the last night.”
As for tour support for this album, Sonny shared:
“Yeah. Yeah, we are, actually. We’d been doing that and we continue to do that on through our shows; through the festival season that kicked off with Jazzfest and our usual run of dates that we do that time of year. We played in Sao Paulo, Brazil recently. We didn’t do it there because it was just too hard to bring that down there under the circumstances. But we will be doing that. When people come out to the shows, they can expect to hear – we’ll do a short acoustic set, take a break, then come back. We’ll probably change up some of those. There’ll be some different songs just to keep it fresh. I think that’s real important, too. That’s basically what we’ll be doing.”
In conducting my research for this interview, I read somewhere that Landreth actually got to meet Jimi Hendrix. I asked him to fill me in on that lucky meeting.
“Well, yeah, I had a run of it there for a while in kind of the beginning with big influences on me as a teenager because I heard B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Clifton Chenier – the zydeco king – all within about a year – a little over a year, maybe a year and a half. I met all of them on those gigs.
“For Jimi’s, me and my buddies went early during the day, which is funny looking back on it. What the hell are we all gonna accomplish if we all are gonna try and find Hendrix? And we did! I mean, there was a hotel next door to the venue and he was in a room. He had adjoining rooms – two rooms and the doors open and he had a reel-to-reel tape player that he was listening to and he was smoking a cigarette.
“This big, English road manager ran us all off. Me and a friend of mine was hiding. There was a little convenience store in the hotel in the lobby. We’re hiding in there, hiding from the tour manager. And in walks Hendrix. He was buying some toothpaste and a toothbrush. We’re like, ‘We got nothing to lose’. We couldn’t believe it, how this came about. We went up and started talking to him, met him, and shook his hand. That was a big mojo for me. I was real surprised. He was much shorter than I thought he would be. But, when I shook his hand, I couldn’t believe how long his fingers were. I was, like, ‘Okay. No wonder I can’t reach those positions.’”
Shifting gears, I asked Sonny Landreth what he thought the state of the blues is today.
“Well, I think it’s evolving, as always. I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the way of being lost. I think it IS going somewhere in the way of some of the young kids coming up. What I’ve noticed - the connection of families, very similar in my area where the Creole and Cajun communities’ music is a huge deal. It’s part of the culture. These kids are all growing up in a family. There could be four kids in a family and they all play music. They all play an instrument. And they’ve all gone on to play with others and make their own music. They have one foot in the path with traditional music, which they learned from their parents who learned it from the grandparents. There’s some cool stuff, too. Incorporating new ideas and I think that’s good. Music needs to mutate in a way to evolve and to stay – not just relevant – but to resonate with people and to make a difference in people’s lives. And I see that with the blues, too.
“I’ve noticed over all these years, there always seems to be like a ten-year cycle where you think it’s going away and not aware of its presence. Then, there’s this resurgence in the way of a revival, of sorts. It can happen with individual artists and different groups. There’s definitely something to that. I don’t really worry about it as long as there are people that hand down to the next generation their ideas and their values with the blues. I think it will always find its way into good hands. The old masters are gone. I mean, we lost B.B. – just a handful of them left in that generation who came after Muddy Waters and earlier Delta bluesmen – a lot of the migration to Chicago and so forth. And, here, with Zydeco music with Clifton Chenier and there was a lot of people who ended up in Texas but even more like entire constituency went out on to the west coast in California when they were looking for work. I think the same thing has happened.
“But the blues is much more, in my mind, I feel that it’s the universal language. And that’s what the last album was really pretty much about in the way of a tribute to heroes and those songs and how the themes of grace in the face of adversity is something everyone relates to. And ever though the language has changed, the blues speaks to everyone universally in that regard. That’s always going to be the spark that lights the flame for a new generation coming up with new ideas.”
Sonny has played with some great people like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffet, and John Hiatt. So, I was curious as to whom he would like to play with that he hasn’t already.
“I’d like to play with Jeff Beck. It almost happened a couple of times. So, I’ve just sort of given that a rest. Ha! Ha! It didn’t work out. Maybe one day. I hope so. But, I tell ya, I wish – I have this fantasy of amassing the chops to play with Wynton Marsalis. I’m not even sure he likes guitar players. I’m open. I like doing other projects with people that creative because it’s good to keep the antenna’s up, pick up something new from working with people. You always hope their cosmic dust rubs off on you, too.”
As for what he’d like to record that he hasn’t done yet?
“Man, that’s a good question. I would like to do another instrumental album and incorporate classical and jazz. I have a lot of exposure to that as a kid growing up playing trumpet in school band and orchestra and so forth. There’s some of that I’ve hit on in some of the albums – just a taste, you know? The concepts. I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not a classical musician because I don’t have the repertoire. It’s something you have to live and breathe every day. But I do relate to it. I think that’s a valid thing. As long as I can keep pushing the boundaries and come up with new ideas. A lot of times it’s good to try something that’s out of your element, so to speak, because that’s where the really cool surprises – that’s when they happen. One thing can lead to another. As long as that’s happening, I’m in.”
Looking ahead for the next one to five years, Landreth shared:
“Well, we’ve got a lot of shows coming up. I’m really excited about the fact to do that. In addition to the double disc, we’re also doing a vinyl. It’s coming into prominence and really cool. We’ll be out playing the shows. Concentrating on that. For me, in particular, it’s trying to perfect more of the acoustic thing, keep improving on that. I got my work cut out for me.”
I often ask artists how they want to be remembered and what they hope their legacy will be so I asked Landreth the same question.
“I hope that people remember me not just as an instrumentalist and anything that I may have accomplished in my own right with that, but also maybe more so the songs. In particular, the lyrical style of writing. I hope that these songs stand the test of time for people and that it still touches those that hear them on down the line. You never know. I always strive to write songs that would last. It’s easy to sit down and write a song. Not so easy to listen to it a week later. ‘What was I thinkin’?’ you know? But to write a song that really stands the test of time, there’s something about that. Well, it’s not a fad, just kind of the latest thing, whatever. That would be my hope, that those songs do hold up and people find something in music that touches them in a way that makes a difference in a good way.”
Please do keep up with the latest on Sonny Landreth at SonnyLandreth.com.