“The most underrated musician on the planet,” is how Eric Clapton once described Sonny Landreth. Indeed, calling Sonny a “slide guitarist,” is like calling Rembrandt an “oil painter;” it is both minimally accurate and woefully inadequate. Sonny’s technique and signature sound put him in a class by himself in a world full of fiery guitar slingers. There’s a genie trapped inside that bottleneck slide, just waiting for Sonny’s magic touch to release it.
Taking the stage at the Cedar with his longtime bass player, Dave Ranson, and drummer Brian Brignac, Sonny opened with “Native Stepson” and “Z Ride,” two songs featured prominently on his 2005 live album, “Grant Street.” Alternating between delicate finger-picking and slapping the guitar with an open hand, Sonny coaxes an impressive variety of sounds and tones out of his Fender Strat. On “Z Rider,” he plucked and bended the strings with his right hand above his slide/fretting left hand to get just the proper sound to fit the mood of the song.
He introduced “Wonderide,” the first offering from his new, all-instrumental release, “Elemental Journey,” as “zydeco meets classical.” Driven by Brignac’s propulsive drumming and Ranson’s insistent bass line, “Wonderide” showcased Landreth’s nimble right hand, as he plucked the strings with both the inside and outside of his fingers. At times, the fast guitar runs made it seem like he had eight fingers on his right hand.
When “Wonderide” ended, Sonny announced, “That concludes tonight’s version of the highbrow entertainment; now, back to the trailer park!” He followed that up with his first vocal of the night, on “The Promise Land,” a Cajun-influenced rocker from 2003’s “The Road We’re On,” segueing straight into a bar band blues, followed by yet another 12-bar blues song, the title of which I believe was “What Was Goin’ On.” As a singer, Sonny has a passable mid-range tenor voice. He’s a decent vocalist, but his singing simply pales in comparison to his formidable guitar chops.
Having displayed his ability to play rock, zydeco, classical and blues, Sonny next delved into reggae for “Forgotten Story” from the new album, moving from there back to the blues for the slow, smoldering “Storm Of Worry” from his last previous album, 2008’s “From The Reach.” Before introducing “Blue Tarp Blues” from that same album, Sonny noted that he and the band played that song in an episode of the HBO series “Treme,” that had just aired that week, “but I haven’t seen it yet.” “Blue Tarp Blues” was written by Sonny post-Katrina, describing the destruction the hurricane had wrought and the landscape of blue tarps covering all of the damaged houses in southern Louisiana. It featured some of Sonny’s hottest playing of the night, with Dave Ranson practically playing lead lines on his bass in order to match Sonny’s furious pace. Not even the inconsiderate magpie nattering behind us could detract from this mesmerizing performance.
Sonny closed out his set with the slow, slinky “Brave New Girl,” from the new album. His only cover tune of the evening was Big Bill Broonzy’s classic blues number,”Key To The Highway.” Finishing strong, he powered up “All About You,” “SS Zydecoldsmobile,” and a N’awlins style number (“Stay Jacques”?). By this time, virtually the entire house was up on its feet, moving to the seductive second-line rhythm, due, in part, to a self-appointed cheerleader who strode up & down the center aisle, gesturing with his arms for everyone to get up off their seats. Thanks, fella; sure glad you were there to help us figure that out.
Local favorite Charlie Parr opened the evening with a compact set of his own slide guitar stylings. His set proved to be a tasty appetizer for the entree to be served up by Sonny Landreth. Unlike Landreth, Parr favors the National steel guitar for his bottleneck work. He is good-natured and unassuming – traits that serve his old-timey music style well. His set ran the gamut from the foot-stomping gospel of “Jubilee,” to the harrowing “1890,” a dark, gloomy account of the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre. He plays seated, hunched over his guitar and staring intently at his handwork, as if performing surgery, rather than playing a guitar. The high point of his set was “Midnight Has Come And Gone,” starting out with a lengthy instrumental intro leading into the verses: “I’ve got my ghosts and they travel with me everywhere I go . . . If they ask where I am, don’t you tell them nothin’.”
Charlie was effusive in his praise of Sonny Landreth (“I can’t wait to get this part done so I can enjoy the show), modest and funny. He closed his short set with “Muskrat,” a folk song popularized locally by “one of my heroes, Spider John Koerner,” emulating Koerner’s signature foot stomping accompaniment to his guitar playing. Kudos to the Cedar for this simpatico pairing of distinct, yet complementary, bottleneck guitar players.