Lafayette guitarist Sonny Landreth, who's performing Saturday night at the Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, is talking about his new album, Grant Street. He recorded the CD live last April at the Lafayette dance hall for which the album is named, and it's a powerful demonstration of his slide guitar prowess. He contends, though, that he wasn't trying to make Grant Street a guitar showcase. "That represents what we do every night, and yeah, it's guitar-heavy," he says matter-of-factly.
Based in the blues and zydeco, Landreth's songs stretch out live to accommodate his distinctive slide style -- a combination of brittle, staccato clusters of notes and energetic, distortion-rich surges up the fretboard, all finger-picked in a way that makes playing guitar solo cliches almost impossible. Backed by David Ranson on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums, these versions reveal how little of the additional instrumentation on the studio albums was necessary. When Landreth plays "U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile," he mimics the accordion so effectively on guitar that you may have to check the original to see if you imagined an accordion part on the Levee Town version. You didn't.
Landreth first made a name for himself playing guitar with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When he was 16, he says, "I heard about this guy who played blues on the accordion and the concept alone hooked me. I couldn't imagine such a thing. I found out Cliff was playing at the Blue Angel Club in Lafayette, went over there, and that changed my life hearing him play."
Twelve or so years later, Landreth was performing in Lafayette when Chenier and his entourage came in and sat in front of him. "Literally, he's sitting next to my amp," Landreth recalls. "It was one of those surrealistic moments where you say, Well, do what you do.' When we got through, he called me over to his table, which was easy to do because he was sitting right there. He says, What are you doing next Wednesday night?' I said, Whatever you've got going," and he invited me to sit in with him in St. Martinville at a Creole club."
The time with Chenier affected his guitar playing in a number of ways. His solos maintain a solid connection to the rhythmic pulse of the song, so much so that dancers aren't affected when he takes off. "I would set up between Big Robert, the drummer, who was incredible, and Cleveland Chenier, his brother, on the rubboard, and he was incredible," Landreth says. "I couldn't have developed what I have now without having that experience, rhythmically, in particular." His sense of melody was also shaped by hearing Cajun and zydeco music and particularly the accordion and the fiddle. "They're the instruments in the area," he says.
"What really set me on my path was learning finger style from Chet Atkins and listening to those records," he continues. "I heard Robert Johnson and that blew my mind. For me, trying to put the bottleneck with the finger-picking style, that got me on my way. That meant that I was using all six strings at one time. If you're finger-picking and you're playing bass patterns and the second and third strings, and melodies on top, it does make for a bigger, more complex sound onstage."
As central as technique is to any guitar player's sound -- and certainly to one as distinctive as Landreth -- he contends that a song's words tell him what to do.
"Listen to the lyrics and what they're about," he says. "Where do they go emotionally? You want to tap into that, and that helps me decide even with my own work where a guitar solo should go. Is this grandstanding or is it adding something to the song?"
Though Grant Street is his first live album, it's hardly the first live recording of himself that Landreth has heard. The growth of jam bands has gone hand in hand with bootlegging live shows and the relaxed attitudes many artists take toward taping. "The torment of all these bootlegs," he says, "is that everybody thinks you want to hear what you did the night before, and I've surprised myself and gone, Ohmigod, I thought that was pretty good when I played it. What the hell was I thinking?' Other times I feel like I don't know where it's coming from and it's a total mystery, but that's what keeps me coming back."
A greater challenge, Landreth says with a laugh, is remembering the words to his songs. Almost half the songs on Grant Street are instrumentals, but the ones with words still test him. Songs that were easy to write in the comfort of home and sing with a lyric sheet in the studio become a lot trickier onstage. "The whole playing the guitar and singing and remembering all that and trying not to make a complete fool out of myself is a full-time job," he says, laughing.
For an interview with Dave Alvin, see "Opening Act" online.