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Premium Properties on Sonny Slide of the Street

Pop music review: Guitarist Landreth applies his remarkable playing and distinctive voice to excellently written songs in an appealing array of styles.

September 27, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Sonny Landreth seems like an awfully mild-mannered fellow to be shaking a world.

In the world of rock slide guitar, such aces as George Harrison, Duane Allman, Lowell George, Ry Cooder, David Lindley and Bonnie Raitt have mapped out the style, establishing its boundaries, making its functions clear, its methods stable, known and pleasing.

Now along comes Landreth, rolling and rumbling through that slide guitar landscape like the Big One.

The lanky Cajun's concert Wednesday night before a meager but blessed audience at the Coach House was an amazing demonstration of how he has redefined slide guitar playing.

It would take a taxonomist to catalog and classify all the techniques that Landreth, 45, brought to bear during his nearly two-hour show and all the exciting tonal variations that resulted.

It went something like this. Starting with a picking approach derived from Chet Atkins, involving a thumb pick and all four fingers of his right hand, Landreth proceeded to pluck, strum, slap, punch, tap, massage and--in the strangest and most amazing maneuver--jab at the strings with a split-fingered right-hand configuration that brought to mind Mr. Spock's "live long and prosper" Vulcan salute.

The result was a treasury of vibrant licks and sounds, from deepest bullfrog to the spectacularly alive, thick, throbbing, pealing cry that is Landreth's standard tone (if "standard" is a proper word for such a wonder).

As for the Spock maneuver, it created simultaneously a liquid, shimmery, atmospheric backdrop and a chiming foreground. What U2's Dave "The Edge" Evans achieves with electronic effects and producer Daniel Lanois gets in the studio with his sonic fog machines, Landreth trumped with his bare hands (plus a clear glass bottleneck slide on his left pinky).

There's nothing more frustrating than technique without content or striking sounds without appealing songs to give them shape and meaning. This was not a problem for Landreth and his backing duo, drummer Michael Organ and bassist Dave Ranson.

Landreth placed his playing within such appealing contexts as traditional blues, romping and high-kicking anthems that had a Celtic feel, elegiac ballads and churning New Orleans funk. Ranson was a steady anchor for all these departures, while Organ's drumming was an active, inventive prod.

Besides being a one-of-a-kind guitarist, the soft-spoken, good-humored Landreth is an excellent songwriter and a very good singer. His writing draws on the imagery at hand in his adopted home state of Louisiana, from moonlit rivers and bayous to the former New Orleans slave-trading center, Congo Square. But he uses the local color to drive at broader, philosophic questions concerning connections and separations, legacies from the past and the meaning to be derived from rough experience.

His lyrics were hard to decipher in concert against the full instrumental sound. But his voice came through well--a sometimes creamy, sometimes grainy tenor that's a thinner, lower-octane approximation of Don Henley's.

*

As he was developing, the late-blooming Landreth played as a sideman with Clifton Chenier and John Hiatt. This Harvard-like musical education grounded him in the deep-roots vitality of the legendary accordionist Chenier, who created Louisiana zydeco music out of blues, R&B and Cajun styles. It also forced Landreth to reckon with Hiatt's ability to attach roots styles to the most ambitious and literate standards of songwriting.

The payoff was evident in Wednesday's show, which ranged from an assured reading of the blues nugget "Key to the Highway" through the charging, Cajun-tinged rockers that are Landreth's signature ("New Landlord," "Shootin' for the Moon," "Back to Bayou Teche" and "Turning Wheel") and on to the plaintively lovely ballad "Outward Bound."

There was a point at mid-set when Landreth seemed to have sung and played what he had to sing and play, with repetition about to set in. Then he dipped into his blues influences and found fresh nourishment. "Blues Attack," the title song of his 17-year-old, newly reissued debut album, helped reinvigorate the show, along with a "Key to the Highway" that at least matched the Eric Clapton/ Derek & the Dominoes rendition.

The home stretch was a delight, culminating in "Congo Square," a ghostly, steamy, tribal-beat New Orleans funk workout, during which the rhythm section was at its most kinetic and Landreth at his most inventive.

"Aw shucks and all that stuff," a delighted Landreth said after the audience--which by then had dwindled from 100 or so to about 50--erupted as much as 50 people can in calling for an encore.

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