Few concerts are more career affirming for musicians than those they perform before a cheering home crowd. For his new live album Recorded Live in Lafayette, zydeco bluesman Sonny Landreth played in his hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana for three consecutive nights at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, dusting off older hits like “Creole Angel” (from 1995’s South of I-10) alongside newer compositions like “Bound By the Blues” (from the 2015 album of the same name). The 16-track double album features solo performances on the first disc and special cameos from Steve Conn and Sam Broussard (both from Landreth’s electric trio) on Disc 2–both of whom have solo careers that Landreth recommends checking out.
We last caught up with Landreth in June of 2015, right as he was preparing to release his 2015 album Bound By the Blues. Two weeks before the June 30th release of his new live album, Landreth spoke with Blues Rock Review from his hometown to explain why making a live record is so much more complicated than most audiences realize.
How have you been since we last spoke in 2015?
I’m still rolling for an aging rocker. I guess I’m hanging in there pretty good. I do feel the bumps in the road more now, but I still love playing the gigs.
What was your selection process like when you were preparing the song list for this album?
It was tricky. I started on that last year. There were some songs that were obvious: for example, some of the instrumentals I wanted to keep as an electric trio, the way we’ve been playing them the last few years, like “The Milky Way Home” and “Brave New Girl” and “Überesso.” I wanted that intact.
What got interesting was thinking about doing an acoustic set, taking some of the older songs and reinterpreting them in that setting. It was a really pleasant surprise how some of those actually spoke better. A good example would be “Creole Angel,” which we played a lot back in the ‘90s when that came out. It was always amped up, a rocker. But in this setting, dynamically I think it gets across better. You can hear my voice better, for one thing. I have a limited range, which is hard to get across with drums, guitar and bass blasting. With “Bound by the Blues,” where there’s so much going on lyrically, it got across better, as well.
It was a bit of a challenge, but that’s part of what made it so interesting. As long as I’m engaged and it’s something that fires me up, that’s a good sign.
Did any of the older songs surprise you or offer new discoveries when you brought them back to the stage?
Yeah, and that’s something I always look for. I always like to be open to surprise; if you do, one thing can lead to another in a creative way. Certainly “Creole Angel” was one, because we hadn’t played it in a long time. Another would probably be how “The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile” works so well in the acoustic setting. We’d never done it like that before. In fact, that is the only song where the recording is the only time [the acoustic experience] has ever taken place.
We played three nights in a row and I was beginning to think, “Maybe this is supposed to be an all-acoustic album.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure. Then we were thinking, “Well, we need a couple more songs to make it long enough to actually be a full album.” So Dave [Ranson], our bass player, said, “What about ‘Zydecoldsmobile’?” We thought, “Well, okay–let’s give it a shot.” That’s the only night we did it, that last night. So that was a cool surprise.
On the electric band, I knew that, having Steve Conn on keys and Sam Broussard, we’d come up with some great stuff. Those guys are so amazing. Bringing their voices to the program was really fun–It was like coming back to the neighborhood.
We recorded in my hometown of Lafayette, and there were obviously some advantages. My engineer was only a few blocks away, Sam Broussard is literally four, five blocks away. I’m down the road. I had the home crowd, and they had our back. It enabled us to go in on a Monday and set up, sound check, go over the songs with Steve and Sam and then record the album on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Each night the audience got progressively more involved and more excited. By the time we got to Thursday, people were really enjoying themselves and making a lot of noise. Most of [the album] came from that night.
What was the experience like to record in your hometown with all of that local support?
It’s the same thing with Grant Street, which we recorded many years ago. There’s nothing like it. These people have been coming out to see me play for, some of them from way, way back when I was a teenager. That’s a special bond. They appreciate it because they’ve seen it evolve and become what it is. There are a lot of memories attached as people grow up around the songs. There’s that sort of tribal sentiment, you know? Strength in numbers. They bring that to the shows. It takes it to another level.
How did your experience cultivating material for Bound by the Blues affect the way you approached selecting material for this live album?
There is, to me, a mindset about selectivity. You get into that frame of thinking. It helped that I’d already done [Bound By the Blues]. Going back to some of those old blues tunes, thinking about which ones to do and how that would influence the new material–I think that probably helped to set up some of what we did this go-around. We included some of those songs, but in the case of doing it part acoustic and part electric, there was a bit of a tried and true factor. I knew some of the songs that we’d been playing live would come into their own. Some songs have a life of their own and keep coming in and out of our set.
It’s more of a creative process. Where you’re down to it, you have a deadline. Deadlines are good for people like me. I can sit around and theorize from here on out, but if I have a deadline that pushes me to encapsulate these ideas or crystalize them into an actual project, it’s a good thing. I find that always helps me. Right at the end of that process and the beginning of actually recording, there’s something that happens that’s really unique. Either new ideas come up, or a new kind of excitement, or a new way of treating the song. Something happens: you get a head of steam that propels the whole thing.
This was quite an undertaking. I can’t really say that I had it all planned out. In fact, I’ll tell you: I didn’t. I wasn’t really sure if it should be acoustic, if I should do some of the trio songs. I wanted to have Steve and Sam onboard, because the three of us have never done a project all together. What they brought to the table was so unique. There are some real jewels of moments that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Audiences might not understand the immensity of undertaking a live album. What was the most difficult part of the process for making this album?
There’s a balance you want to achieve, because you want to prepare and be at your best; at the same time, for a live album there should be an element of spontaneity. That connectivity that we experience every night we’re on the road? We want to capture that. The hardest part is if you’re just not on that night. Those nights happen. It’s a roulette wheel, in a way. You always hope that you’ll be ready.
The key element was that everybody was playing something different than we normally did for instrumentation. I was playing a resonator guitar; Brian [Brignac], in lieu of the drum kit, played the cajon, which is a Latin percussion instrument–it looks like a box he sits on. He hits one side–it’s tuned to a kick drum–and he hits the other side, and there’s a snare built inside the framework. It’s really interesting, but it leaves a lot of air, a lot of space, which I like for the acoustic songs. Dave was playing a ukulele bass–as cute as it is, you would never imagine the sound that comes out of that thing. I was struck by how effective that was for the songs and how we created layers of sound and texture.
The hard part is, once you’re going, you can’t think about it too much. This is probably my Achilles heel: if I start thinking about what I’m doing, I’m doomed. [Laughs] I want to be in the moment and get into that creative space. When you’re playing every night, typically you don’t think about that. You just go out, do your job and have fun. The more nights in a row you play, the more you get into a rhythm and have an edge that’s really important. We went out and played for two weeks solid leading into the recording. We had momentum, which is important. That’s the advantage of having more than one night–when it’s one night only, that’s it. It was way too important to me to leave it to chance. I knew as we played those songs that we’d get into our own rhythm.
After going through this process, do you think you’ll do another live album in the future?
God, no! This is it for me. [Laughs] I aged about two years, which, at this point, is pretty significant. [Laughs] No, never say never. In some respects, every night is a recording, because 10 minutes after you walk offstage, it’s on YouTube. People out there are recording. Earlier on, I got concerned about people sneaking in recorders. But come on. At one point, I totally adopted the Grateful Dead’s philosophy: more for the people. If anyone wants to record, have at it. So in that regard, you’re kind of prepared for a live album–at least mentally. You really do feed off that energy, and vice versa. It’s a beautiful give and take between an audience and musicians.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your career as a musician?
Probably the most important thing is opening up to the realm of possibility: particularly how one thing can lead to another, if you pay attention. You never know who’s going to be in the audience. It could be the friend of a friend of somebody who has a studio. That leads to playing on somebody’s album, that leads to exposure to play on somebody else’s album…so there’s a synchronicity there that I appreciate more and more as time’s gone by.
You can always learn something from anybody. Always keep the antennas up for learning.
What’s one thing that excites you about the blues as a genre these days?
One thing that does excite me is how some of the young musicians coming up have this whole family that’s playing. They all have their own instruments, they all have their own bands, they have a family band and they have their own band. They typically come from a family that, maybe the dad played a guitar or instrument, or maybe the mom, or both. They obviously opened the door to them to the music, and they’re not necessarily caught up wit the contemporary music or the fad of the day. I think that’s pretty exciting, the possibility of someone coming along that’s extra special and taking it to new heights.
Interview by Meghan Roos