I’m already pissed off right at the start of this review because I have to take the time to answer the question, “Who the hell is Sonny Landreth?” Unless you’re a guitar aficionado, the mention of his name usually draws a blank stare, a quizzical look or, “Wasn’t he a catcher for the Chicago Cubs?” (No, dickhead, that was Hobie Landrith, which goes to show I know baseball history as well as I know music history).
Okay, I’ll tell you people who Sonny Landreth is.
Sonny Landreth is God. Fucking God, people!
Part of the reason Sonny hasn’t attracted a wider audience is that the experts who want to control our minds have shoved him into the genre they call “Cajun,” which apparently is a combination of Zydeco (don’t tell the Creoles), drunken fiddlers and Tabasco sauce. Relegating Sonny Landreth to a cuisine has to rank as one of the crimes of the century. Sonny is beyond genre; crossing between blues, rock, hillbilly, knee-slappers, butt-kickers and grinders with deep awareness of music theory and structure.
If that doesn’t help, good! As I always say, “let the music speak for itself and stop trying to classify it!”
While Sonny has done several excellent studio albums, this is a man designed to play in front of a live audience. This may surprise those who believe that a great live performer should jump about, perform a dance routine, magically appear from under the stage and generally make asses of themselves. The two best live performers I’ve ever seen are Sonny Landreth and Liam Gallagher, both of whom just stand there and do their thing.
It’s all about the music, people!
Fortunately for us, Sonny and his band came out with Grant Street, performed at the Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette, Louisiana back in 2005. I believe it’s the best live album ever recorded, certainly better than the highly overrated Live at Leeds and whatever that crap was that Peter Frampton saddled us with in the seventies. The sound is fabulous, the mix between crowd noise and performer is perfect and the songs are well-selected, exquisitely arranged and performed with both passion and precision.
Grant Street kicks off with the teasing riffs of “Native Stepson,” giving Sonny the opportunity to show us right off that bat that he’s more than sheer speed. His solo flows so naturally with the rhythm that I’d dare say it’s almost understated. This isn’t show-off shit like Satriani or Yngvie: his music has the discipline of a concerto that happens to feature a certain instrument. It’s a gorgeous song that warms up the crowd.
What happens next is one of the sexiest songs I have ever heard, the blues number “Broken-Hearted Road.” Sonny steps up to the mike and delivers a lead vocal that is passionate, vulnerable and sincere. When he delivers the line, “I know I know the feeling that I’m feeling/When you lay your body next to mine,” you can feel the anticipation of skin touching skin and that sweet moment when the act of touching another person’s warmth fulfills one need while firing up another. Sonny’s solo is equally loaded with desire and the need to scratch the itch with human contact. The bottom line is this: if this song doesn’t make you want to go for a long, deep hard one, you’re as dead as Kelsey’s nuts.
Lest the crowd collapse into a mass orgy, the band immediately kicks into the irresistible toe-tapper, “Gone Pecan.” Keeping the crowd guessing, the next song is the almost-mystical instrumental, “Port of Calling,” where you’ll hear some of the most exquisite slide-and-picking you’ll ever hear. The band kicks it back into gear with “Blues Attack,” a fun-poking song about infidelity that makes you appreciate that the psychological value of the blues lies in sharing really bad experiences with good friends.
There’s no rest with the next song, “Z Rider,” a minor-key driver where you begin to think, “Shit, there have to be two guys playing.” Sonny Landreth is not only fast, but seamless; he never sounds like he’s rushing it or straining his fingers. When you see him live, he looks relaxed and like he’s having a good time with friends, which doesn’t correlate with the mad whirl of sound he can coax out of a guitar and a slide.
As a tribute to Louisiana roots, “U. S. S. Zydecoldsmobile” fills the bill, another great toe-tapper about climbing in the car and heading for where the music’s playing; the perfect image of America when it’s not fretting about stupid shit like health care and politics. This is followed by the heavy-slow bluesy sounds of “Wind in Denver,” performed tightly and exquisitely. You can hear that Sonny’s really getting into the moment, raring back and firing the vocal with serious determination. Next up is the more Chicago-style “All About You,” another great bluesy number slightly up tempo from the previous track . . . and you start to get the feeling that something magic is about to happen.
That magic is the seven-minute guitar masterpiece, “Pedal to the Medal,” a mini-symphony of engaging riffs and subtle but satisfying shifts in chord structure. It is at times marvelously melodic; at times it sounds like raw passion and most of the time you say there is no way in hell that this can be only one guy playing that guitar. “Pedal to the Medal” builds steadily to an incredible finish where Sonny bends full, raw notes over the shouts of people in the crowd who sound like they’re all having simultaneous orgasms.
The longest pause on the album takes place after “Pedal to the Medal” so listeners can have a post-sex cigarette. The band comes back with the perfect post-climax song, the dramatic and diverse “Congo Square.” This is a slightly up-tempo tom-tom blues number with more than a taste of voodoo. At this point, the band could have played “Winchester Cathedral” and the crowd would have died happy. Never one to bore the audience, Sonny does some fascinating and subtle work with the slide that gives you a greater appreciation of the capacity of the style.
The album ends with Sonny expressing sincere appreciation to the crowd for “recording an album with us.” If there is one thing you learn to appreciate about Sonny Landreth is that he knows that the music is for the people. Yeah, he’s got the talent and the fingers to be a guitar icon and wander off into twisted alleys of meaningless riffs to impress you with the lightning speed of his fingers. I don’t think he gives a crap about that. Unless it clicks with his listeners, what’s the point? In Grant Street, Sonny Landreth proves that he’s not only blessed with incredible talent but he knows how to use that talent to move a crowd and make people feel great to be alive.