Sonny Landreth’s new album, Bound By The Blues, to be released June 8th on Provogue, marks a return to the slide guitarist’s musical roots. It presents a bold, big-sounding collection of recordings that climb to stratospheric heights of jazz informed improvisation, swagger like the best of classic rock, and inevitably remain deeply attached to the elemental emotional and compositional structures that are at the historic core of the blues.
With Landreth’s mountainous guitar tones and nuanced singing leading the way on its ten songs, Bound By the Blues is a powerful tribute to the durability and flexibility of the genre, and to his own creative vision. It’s also a radical departure from his previous two albums, 2012’s classical/jazz fusion outing Elemental Journey and 2008’s guest-star-studded From the Reach.
“Ever since The Road We’re On [his Grammy-nominated 2003 release], fans have been asking me, ‘When are you going to do another blues album?’ ” Landreth explains. “After expanding my songs for Elemental Journey into an orchestral form, I thought I’d get back to the simple but powerful blues form. I’d been playing a lot of these songs on the road with my band, and we’ve been taking them into some surprising places musically. So going into the studio to record them with just our trio seemed like the next step.”
Bound By the Blues, the guitarist’s twelfth album, pivots on the song “Where They Will.” Its gloriously chiming cascades of six-string, and the refrain “Let the blues take me where they will,” serve as a musical blueprint for the album. “The blues has been a big part of my journey for the past 40-plus years,” Landreth attests. “Some of the numbers on this album are among the first I learned. I wrote ‘Where They Will’ about my relationship to blues – letting the music lead me to new sounds and improvisational passages, and introduce me to things I haven’t played before.”
The Landreth-penned title track offers brilliantly keening guitar solos while paying tribute to the universality of the experiences – love, death, birth, transcendence – chronicled in the blues’ vast catalog. “Bound By the Blues” also name-checks Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Sainte-Marie and some of Landreth’s other musical heroes along the way. He offers, “Singing about the unifying power of the blues and paying tribute to the great artists who’ve helped shape the music in that song means a lot to me.”
So does paying homage to his hero and fellow slide slinger Johnny Winter, who died last year, with the instrumental “Firebird Blues.” Winter was an important influence. The two men became friends and often shared bills in recent years, and Landreth made a guest appearance on Winter’s 2011 return-to-form Roots. Landreth reflects, “The news of Johnny’s death came just as we were about to make this album and it hit me really hard. I decided to record a slow instrumental as a tribute by keeping it raw and in the moment like Johnny’s playing always was.” To that end, he used his vintage Gibson Firebird guitar, a model long associated with Winter. Drummer Brian Brignac played on cardboard boxes to give the track a funky, primitive feel, while bassist David Ranson played a ukulele bass with nylon strings for a more flexible kind of thunder.
Bound By the Blues opens with a brisk version of “Walking Blues,” a Delta chestnut associated with Robert Johnson and Son House that’s among the first blues tunes the Louisiana-based slide man recalls learning. Inspired by the Paul Butterfield interpretation, the arrangement’s pace and singing guitar solo takes the song’s broken-hearted lyrics to a surprisingly joyful place. And his take on Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” (made famous by Elmore James) is played as a dance floor stomp, with a beat Landreth’s late mentor, the zydeco king Clifton Chenier, used to call a “double shuffle.” The performance is a showcase for the sheer heat of Landreth’s touring and recording trio as well as his own right-hand technique, with sharp-toned picking and muting adding previously unheard nuances to the oft-recorded number.
“Key To the Highway” was first recorded by pianist Charlie Segar for the Vocalion label in 1940. But Landreth’s interpretation reframes the song in much the way that great jazz improvisers like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane reinvented pop tunes. Landreth reconstructs the familiar melody into a series of telegraph-like dots and dashes, with the low-end growl of his Stratocaster humming like an overblown saxophone and his use of delay creating sheets of reverberating sound.
“As a kid, my first instrument was trumpet. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were two of my jazz heroes,” Landreth relates. “That’s where a lot of my perspective on improvising and phrasing comes from, and my belief that when you’re playing ‘in the zone’ there’s no real limitation of where you can go creatively.” This is, of course, if you’ve got Landreth’s staggering command of his instrument.
The lean Mississippi native, who grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, had already been playing horn for three years when he got his hands on his first six-string and fell deeply in love. Slide guitar spoke to Landreth immediately. He recalls, “When I realized that my slide heroes had mastered a vocal quality on the guitar, I wanted to do the same thing. At the start, the sounds I made were rough on everybody – my family, and especially my poor dog and cat – but eventually I was able to develop my own instrumental voice and began to apply that to any style I wanted to play.”
At age 17 Landreth attended three very different shows in his home state that would have a great impact on him. “Amazingly, in the span of about a year, I met and heard B.B. King in New Iberia, Jimi Hendrix in Baton Rouge and Clifton Chenier in Lafayette. Needless to say, all that had a profound effect on me. To this day, I still think about those experiences.” Many years later, he became a member of Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band. With steamy roadhouse sets that often ran for hours without a break and stretched songs out for their maximum impact on the dance floor, he was put to the test. Landreth quickly developed the ability to change keys, rhythms and even musical styles in a flash.
While still with Clifton, he recorded a solo album in 1981 called Blues Attack. Four years later his influential “Congo Square,” named for the slave auction block in old New Orleans, appeared on Down In Louisiana. Although that album fanned the flames of his reputation as an emerging force in roots music, Landreth kept a parallel career going as a celebrated sideman and session player. Over the years he performed and recorded with many great artists, including songwriter John Hiatt and British blues innovator John Mayall, and toured as a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. He also collaborated with Eric Clapton and has performed at all of Clapton’s prestigious Crossroads Guitar Festivals since 2004.
Along the way Landreth has continued to develop his vision and his musical voice, growing increasingly original and diverse, expanding from blues, zydeco, folk, country and jazz into increasingly category-blurring musical excursions like Bound By the Blues.
His plans for the remainder of 2015 include heavy international touring with his razor-sharp trio as well as duet concerts with fellow slide virtuoso Cindy Cashdollar. (Landreth and Cashdollar both guested on Arlen Roth’s recent Slide Guitar Summit album.)
“Developing a style and an approach that is your own musically is not something to be taken for granted,” Landreth says. “I’m at a point in life where I want to make the most of every moment I can and that changes your perspective, your priorities and how you relate to everyone else. And at the end of the day, I think that’s the essence of what I wanted to express with Bound By The Blues.”