Sonny Landreth – Bayou Blues
The Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette, Louisiana, officially opened its doors with a big Fourth of July party in 1980. Headlining was Clifton Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, the group that was to zydeco what the Muddy Waters Band was to Chicago blues — i.e., an ensemble that created a whole new sound and played it better that anyone else. The opening act was the Red Beans & Rice Revue, a popular blue-eyed soul band that added Cajun accordion (played by future Beausoleil member Pat Breaux) and rock guitar to its versions of Stax Records hits, Elmore James chestnuts and Van Morrison tunes.
One musician played both sets: a lanky, 29-year-old hometown boy named Sonny Landreth, whose long brown hair fell in his face as he leaned over his guitar and slid the glass cylinder on his left pinky up and down the strings. He was the glue that held the evening together, the bridge that connected the deep blues of Chenier to the raucous rock ‘n’ roll of Red Beans & Rice. It was this combination of traditional roots and party-hearty rock that would enable Grant Street to thrive as a Louisiana institution for 24 years and counting.
It was steamy hot as only a July night on the Gulf Coast can be. The club hadn’t installed ceiling fans yet, much less an air conditioning system, and the former wholesale-produce warehouse turned into a sauna. The 800 customers inside were leaning and dripping against the Y-shaped cedar pillars, so the owners threw open the big green doors to the red-brick building. This had the effect of doubling the crowd, pumping the sound out to hundreds of folks milling around on the sidewalk who couldn’t get in to the sold-out show.
“It was a wild night,” Landreth remembers. “People in the street were passing drink orders into the bar, and people inside were passing drinks out to the people in the street. I’d been on the road with Clifton for about five months, but this was the first time I’d played with him before my hometown crowd, so I was extra fired up. And I sat in with my pals in Red Beans & Rice every chance I got. Little did anyone know then that Grant Street would last so long and be the place where I’d see so many great blues acts.”
On April 23 and 24, 2004, Landreth returned to the club to record his first-ever live album, titled simply Grant Street (due out January 25 on Sugar Hill Records). It was the weekend of the Festival International de Louisiane, Lafayette’s annual street festival. Amid the food and craft booths scattered throughout downtown were six music stages showcasing such French-singing acts as Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys from Louisiana, Baaba Maal from Senegal, Beolach from Cape Breton, Andre Borbe from Belgium, and Bois Sec Ardoin from Louisiana. After long hours of listening to acoustic music and drinking beers in the sun, festivalgoers were primed for a loud and boisterous evening, and they crowded into Grant Street for Landreth’s annual hometown gig.
“I’d been thinking of doing a live album for a long time,” he explains. “There were a lot of bootlegs floating around, but I thought they sounded terrible, so I wanted to set the record straight. And if I was going to do a live album, I wanted to do it at Grant Street, because of the history and the vibe of the place. I wanted to do it during the festival, because if you’ve been to that festival and have had a good time, you’ll show up for the gig and put that energy into it. I wanted to recapture the excitement of that original opening night, of all those nights when I opened for Muddy Waters or Ray Charles at Grant Street, of the special connection I have with that Lafayette audience.”
There’s no audience like a South Louisiana audience. It’s one of the few regions left in the United States where adults still go out to dance — and they do it to roots musics such as Cajun, zydeco, blues and swamp-pop. Non-hipster, working-class couples turn off their TVs on Saturday night, jump in the pickup truck, and drive out to a rickety wooden dancehall such as Richard’s in Lawtell or La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge to do the two-step to an accordion and guitar. Grant Street simply applied that habit to touring, amplified bands.
So when Landreth led his trio through “The USS Zydecoldsmobile” last April, the crowd didn’t stand around, frozen in cool, checking out the leader’s virtuoso chops, as they would in so many other cities. The locals were soon flinging their elbows one way and their hips another to the push-and-pull syncopation. The writhing mass before the stage sparked Landreth and his two bandmates — drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist David Ranson — to push harder, which incited the crowd, which further pumped up the band, and so on, in the closed-feedback system so essential to live music.
“I can work on a song by myself,” Landreth asserts, “but I can only do so much; I can practice guitar by myself, but I can only do so much. It’s not until you’re part of a group onstage and you’re feeding off the audience’s energy that it really takes off. And because of the culture of dancehalls and festivals, the audiences here can give you more energy than anyone.”
The Grant Street performance of “The USS Zydecoldsmobile” soon surpassed the studio version on Landreth’s 2000 album Levee Town, as well as Jimmy Buffett’s popular cover version. It was a Chuck Berry kind of car song, a ride for kicks, tethered to a zydeco two-step learned from Clifton Chenier. The lyrics talk about driving around the two-lane blacktops of South Louisiana on Fat Tuesday until the road is blocked by costumed revelers on horseback making the traditional Mardi Gras Courir. At that point, sings Landreth, there’s no choice but to “get up on the trunk and dance at will,” and Blevins provides every listener with sufficient incentive to do just that.
Also on the live album — and also drawn from Levee Town — is “Broken Hearted Road”, a different kind of road song. This is a slow blues stomp, a lament by a traveling man who has tired of fleeting encounters in anonymous motel rooms and longs to get back to the family and friends back home. The new stage version is lit up, like most of Landreth’s recordings, by astonishing slide-guitar work, but it’s also marked by something no other guitar hero possesses: a swampy approach to rhythm and phrasing that could only come from South Louisiana. Thus the track is both an expression of missing home and an example what that home provides.
“Like a lot of young guys, I left home at 20 and thought I was never coming back,” Landreth admits. “Three months later I was back. I had fallen in love with the Colorado mountains, which were the exact opposite of Louisiana. I went from living below sea level amid big cypress trees and thick humidity to living at 8,000 feet amid big pine trees and no humidity. Running out of money was only part of why I returned. Colorado is a beautiful place, but it wasn’t home. I soon realized I had to come back here and recharge my spiritual batteries.