How is Sonny Landreth like baseball’s 2017 Houston Astros, recently revealed to have stolen signs from opposing pitchers? It’s a question we’re all asking. One of the interesting aspects of the Astros’ sign-stealing is the debate around just how helpful it is to know what pitch is coming next. Some players like to know what to expect and others don’t find it helpful. With Landreth, the brilliant guitarist, you always know what to expect: beautiful slide lines laid over Cajun-derived grooves. But knowing what’s coming doesn’t make his albums, like Blacktop Run, any less enjoyable. He’s not about delivering a surprise, so much as he’s about delivering great music.
The genius of Landreth’s playing is his lyricism. Elmore James perfected modern electric blues slide guitar and Duane Allman took it to a different level, figuring out how to fold in country and rock. Landreth, an Allman acolyte (he owns a piece of an Allman-worn shirt, the now-magical shirt a gift from Eric Clapton to Allman during the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs sessions), consistently captures Allman’s sense of melody and drama. His playing is clean and pretty, with a tone like a violin. Landreth’s playing never overpowers. Instead, he dazzles with slide lines that have the natural beauty of a bird gliding along a gust of wind.
That’s what you get every album. So an instrumental like “Beyond Borders” is fairly standard Landreth. His slide explores some Middle Eastern melodies, Steve Conn provides some very pretty piano, and you never miss the vocals. The songs are interesting, but don’t spin out too far. There are verses and choruses and familiar structures. It’s just that Landreth lets his slide do the talking for him.
Except when he actually sings himself. Landreth has a nasal voice, that while not in Bob Dylan territory, is distinctive. I’m a fan, mostly because it’s almost the opposite of his slide work, which is boldly confident and precise. Having said that, his voice and slide mesh unusually well on “Don’t Ask Me,” which sounds like a Louisiana standard but is actually written by Conn. There’s accordion and cajón percussion, but Landreth steals the show, with some impossibly lovely acoustic slide work that has the feel of genuine Delta blues, but that’s also way more complex and sophisticated. His voice evokes the swamp and adds a down-home charm to the tune.
And make no mistake. Landreth’s charm is what powers much of this album. “Mule” is familiar country-by-way-of-the-Bayou rock, but Landreth’s voice gives it an earth-bound sincerity while his slide takes the tune into space. Not space in the jazz way, but with melodies that come at you so fast, you can’t even process how gorgeous they are. Songs bounce around like lumbering trains coming down a track, while his slide nimbly races in and out of the beats. Landreth’s playing is technical, but you don’t necessarily notice because it also sounds so relaxed and natural.
When I say that knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily change your response, it’s not a defense of the Astros so much as a reflection of how impressive Landreth is. His music is remarkably consistent, which in many ways makes it harder for him to thrill. Landreth has his sound and captivates us by continuously finding new ways to make beautiful music within the surprisingly broad genre of Louisana blues. Like the closer who only throws fastballs and still gets outs, Landreth catches us joyfully listening across every moment of this album and while we’re probably not surprised, we’re certainly delighted. Every time.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Beyond Borders
– Somebody Gotta Make A Move
– Lover Dance With Me
– Don’t Ask Me
The Big Hit
– Don’t Ask Me
Review by Steven Ovadia