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Guitarist Sonny Landreth Finds His Own Ground : Pop music: Long noted as a sideman with John Hiatt and others, the artist takes the bottleneck into a world of melodic stylings.


Think of a bottleneck guitar and you may see visions of a solitary bluesman wailing away mournfully on a beat-up old instrument and singing of hard times. Or perhaps you'll think of Duane Allman, doomed to an early death, playing with an intensity that sounds as if he knows his fate.

Guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth could change those perceptions. Although his style is rooted firmly in the blues, and though his technique should please the most demanding bottleneck aficionado, Landreth takes the slide guitar into a world of rollicking, hook-laden pop.

Long noted as a sideman with John Hiatt, Zachary Richard, Michael Doucet, John Mayall and others, Landreth--who plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--has come into his own with the release of "South of I-10," a red-hot follow up to his 1992 solo debut, "Outward Bound."

The 44-year-old longtime resident of Lafayette, La., conceptualized the album as something of a tribute to the music and culture of his adopted home state, but he has synthesized those traditions with a raucous, driving sound, crisp, modern production and highly melodic, radio-friendly material.

"I spent a lot of time with it, and I'm very happy with it," he said last week, on the phone from a tour stop in San Francisco. "It's different than 'Outward Bound.' It rocks more, and it has more of a sense of place, kind of embracing the roots more. I've been meaning to do this for some time, get closer to the rhythms of Cajun music, zydeco, blues. It has all these influences, but it's still a rock 'n' roll album."

He recorded it at the Dockside Studio in Maurice, La., in an effort to fully retain the flavor of the region.

"It felt right," Landreth said. "A friend of mine has this really great studio that's right on the river, and you can really soak up the vibe and let it affect the songs in terms of the recording experience. It's like 11 acres, and there's all these huge old oak trees. . . . "

While Landreth's blazing guitar heroics, wispy-but-sincere-sounding vocals and memorable song-craft comprise the heart of "South of I-10," he had some pretty heavy company in town for the sessions--including Dire Straits' guitarist Mark Knopfler and legendary New Orleans pianist-songwriter-producer Allen Toussaint.

"Mark is incredible," Landreth said. "I met him at a gig we did in London back in 1992, and we stayed in touch over the last couple of years. He invited me to be on his solo album [slated for release in March '96], and I said, 'Well, I'm making a new album too,' and he came down and spent five or six days. We had a great time. He's just amazing.

"And Allen, well, he's been a hero of mine since I was a little kid. The first record I ever saw with his name on it was the Al Hirt instrumental hit 'Java' [written by Toussaint and released in 1964]. I got to know him during a songwriters tour I did with him, Michelle Shocked and Guy Clark. We hit it off really well, and I always wanted to make an album with him, so . . . .

"I've got a ton of heroes, and that started very early on," he continued. "I was into the Ventures as a kid, then I discovered Wes Montgomery, and then a big influence was Chet Atkins--that's how I learned to finger pick; my right hand technique is completely owed to Chet Atkins.

"Then I got into Delta blues and discovered Robert Johnson, and that was it. I had been playing slide but approaching it with a single-note, single-line approach. When I heard Robert Johnson, then it occurred to me to apply what I knew of Chet Atkins' right hand and to start using the bottleneck with all six strings, so you have a melody, a rhythm and a bass line all at the same time." Landreth also utilizes a number of different tunings.

"I want to keep at it and keep improving and hopefully to keep playing for people who get it," he said. "To conceive of an idea, write a song, record it and get the album played for people is a real beautiful thing."

* Sonny Landreth plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. West Coast Harem and 2,000 Pounds of Blues open. Showtime: 8 p.m. $10. (714) 496-8930.

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