Sonny Landreth’s Ambient Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 07.09.12 in Spotlights

Elemental Journey is the 11th solo album from Sonny Landreth, and by far the Louisiana slide guitarist’s most atypical. For starters, it’s all instrumental, but even more startlingly, it’s as far from blues as he’s ever gone. But Sonny’s often-wispy voice is hardly missed here, and the music may rarely be blues, but it also rarely lacks feeling, sometimes (as on “Letting Go” or “Wonderide”) even blues feeling. And Landreth’s grounding in blues, country, Cajun and zydeco music emerges in various places, in various ways; Elemental Journey is almost like a rootsy, guitar-based version of Brian Eno’s ambient sound. It may disappoint diehard blues fans, but it shouldn’t disappoint diehard Sonny Landreth fans.

Because when you think about it, the slide style Landreth developed early in his career while fronting a rock trio or quartet is ideally suited to the layered music he now creates with a slightly expanded band and some surprisingly effective violin, viola and cello players from the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra. After playing in zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s rip-snorting Red Beans and Rice Revue in the ’70s, Landreth recorded a pair of albums for a small Louisianablues label in the early ’80s. He parlayed that into a pivotal role in John Hiatt’s band, spicing up Slow Turning (1988) and later Is Anybody There. His “official” debut came in 1992 with Outward Bound, a daring blend of commercial southern boogie, progressive slide blues and Louisiana sounds. By now he’d perfected his singular style of playing with the slide on his pinky finger, so that it glides above the fretboard and along the strings while behind it, his other fingers are fretting notes and playing chords. The fingers on his right hand, meanwhile, tap, slap and pick at the strings while his palm and the occasional free finger create a muting effect that emulates jazz trumpeters (which Landreth happens to have been as a schoolboy). It’s a shame, really, that Sonny Landreth doesn’t have more hands, because it’d be great fun to see what he did with them.

All of these techniques combine to give him a much broader palette of sounds to work with than most slide guitarists have, and makes his playing more percussive. Landreth can move back and forth between an overwhelming roar and a delicate fragility in the blink of an eye, especially live, as evidenced on the 2005 Grant Street. But his kaleidoscopic licks are perhaps even more impressive on The Road We’re On (2003). That one opens (“True Blue”) and closes (the delightfully loopy” Juke Box Mama”) with Landreth playing an acoustic resonator guitar that adds to the textures of the album’s other highlights — the funky “Hell at Home,” the confidently shuffling “All About You,” the slow, minor-key blues “A World Away” (on which he makes his ax sound almost like a pedal steel, then shimmers out on a heartbreaking slide lick), and the swooning “Fallin’ for You.” The album arguably represents Landreth’s most rough ‘n’ ready blues, a stunning blend of technique and passion. South of I-10 (1995) is only slightly less intense, perhaps because it is more deeply rooted in Louisiana motifs, with their built-in lilt.

That one also featured Mark Knopfler, and when Sonny debuted his own Landfill label with 2008′s From the Reach, he brought back Knopfler and added Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson and other guests for particular tracks. He tailors each of his songs specifically to whichever guitarist sidekick it features, and gets the best out of all of them. There’s still enough Sonny Landreth in most tracks to pass muster, but it’s hard not to wish for a little more. Perhaps that’s why Elemental Journey works so well most of the time; say what you will about the strings and atmospherics, this is definitely a guitar album by a man who knows how to wrench all manner of sounds and emotions out of his ax. (He’s joined on one track by Joe Satriani and on another by Eric Johnson.) The opening “Gaia Tribe” is redolent of Bayou State swampiness though it bears nary a lick suggesting zydeco, Cajun or any other indigenous forms, and Satriani solos with a visceral ferocity that matches his prog-shredding technique. (Johnson, alas, doesn’t fare as well on “Passionola,” the surface beauty of his lines showing little staying power.) “Wonderide” is another with a distinct Louisiana feel, at least until it morphs something almost classical. On tracks like “Heavy Heart Rising,” “Wonderide,” “Letting Go,” “Elemental Journey” and “Forgotten Story” the melodies and guitar lines weave in and out conversationally. But on “Heavy Heart Rising,” that interplay is abrasive as well as ruminative; on “Reckless Beauty” they don’t converse so much as flat-out collide. And on “Forgotten Story” the conversation is between Landreth’s swooping, soaring guitar and Robert Greenridge’s steel drums and Steve Conn’s organ, resulting in sort of a Mississippi River meets Caribbean Sea soundscape that is absolutely exhilarating. Whatever you do, don’t let blues purism get in the way of letting you dig this wholly unanticipated album on its own terms.