Tag Archives: Sonny Landreth

The songbird’s sweet melodious tone

It’s prettywell known that recording Bob Dylan is not a task for the faint-hearted, or the easily distracted. This interview with sound engineer Chris Shaw about working with His Bobness is full of choice bits, but I particularly like this gossip about “Moonlight,” one of the best songs on “Love and Theft”:

For me, personally, I have really fond memories of recording that song on “Love And Theft”, “Moonlight.” It’s really gorgeous, and I think the take that’s on the record is the second take, the whole thing is completely live, vocals and all, not a single overdub, no editing, it all just flowed together at once, and it was a really beautiful moment. During that session, at the end of every night, I would do a quick rough mix of the songs that we had been working on so he could hear them. And the rough mix of “Moonlight” ended up being the final master. I took two more stabs at mixing it, and everytime, we would wind up going back to that rough mix, there’s just something about it.

But, the thing was, there’s a lyric on the song where Bob sings, “The leaves cast their shadows on the stones,” and, when he was singing it live, he was reading his lyrics off a piece of paper, and, I guess, for a split-second, he got dyslexic, because on the live take, he actually sang, “The leaves cast their *stadows* on the stones.” So, the only time I did any editing on that song, was when I heard this word “stadows” go by, I knew he meant shadows, because I had the lyric sheet in front of me. So, when I tried a remix, I took the vocal, and I found a “sh” from somewhere else, and I chopped the “st” out and put that in, so he was singing “shadows,” y’know. And Bob was listening to all these mixes, and he kept saying, “Nah, man, I really wanna use that rough mix.” Finally, I said, “Well, you know, on the rough mix, you don’t sing ‘shadows,’ you sing, ‘stadows.” And he took a long hit on his cigarette, and he kind of looked at me deadpan, and he went, “Well, you know: ‘stadows.’” So, at the final mastering, we figured that we really couldn’t let that stadows go by, because everybody would give him shit about it, so we did sliver edit, literally just for the “sh,” like a 15 milisecond edit.

It’s interesting to see how far Dylan has come from his studio Luddite days:

Between “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, we did a couple of things for movie soundtracks. There was “Cross the Green Mountain,” the song we did for Gods And Generals, and a couple of others, and, when we went into the studio for that, I said to Bob, “You know, since this is just a one-off song, it’s not going to be for an album, I wouldn’t mind trying ProTools, just so I can show you the benefits of it.” And he said, “Okay, whatever.” And we did a take of the song, and he was like, “Okay, I want to edit out the second verse and put the fourth verse in there.” And I said, “Okay, and by the time he walked into the control room from the studio, I had it done.” And his eyes just opened wide. “You can edit that fast on ProTools?” “Yeah.” “And you can keep everything?” “You can keep everything, Bob.” You could just see the gears in his head suddenly spinning.

The thing is, now, he’s gotten so used to the speed of that, when we were doing Modern Times, he was actually getting impatient with the machine. He’s be, like, “Okay, let’s swap the second and third verse.” And ten minutes later he’s like, “Are you done yet?” I’m like, “Bob, don’t you remember the last record we did, it took me about an hour to do that, can you give me somewhere between zero and an hour to get it done?”

At least two of Dylan’s albums from the 1970s, New Morning and Street-Legal, were drastically affected by Dylan’s resistance to new recording technology. New Morning was simply a weak batch of songs made weaker by muffled production, but Street-Legal was a pretty solid collection performed by the biggest ensemble Dylan had ever assembled at that point. His insistence on using only a few microphones meant that the recording could never be properly mixed: a given track would contain sound from several instruments, and bringing up one instrument would bring up all the others on that particular mike. The sound on the SACD re-release of Street-Legal was a big improvement over the vinyl and initial CD versions, but it’s still crying out for a thorough sonic upgrade.

By chance, after reading the Shaw article, I came across this interview with Sonny Landreth, which included some detailed talk about his studio methods. Now Landreth, while a perfectly capable and sometimes inspired songwriter, isn’t in Dylan’s league as a composer — he’s a guitarist justly celebrated for his unique sound and idiosyncratic slide technique. But it’s hard not to wish Dylan could absorb some of Landreth’s studio approach:

It’s been said that you’re pretty meticulous in the studio. Is that fair?

That would be fair, a fair assessment. I have opened up to the strong possibility that perhaps now would be a good time to outline the space more, leave some parts left alone and honor the moment. If you’re going to honor the song, in turn, you can honor the moment, too. It’s two different things.

You make an album. It can be like a painting. I was thinking of that when we were out there yesterday at Elemore’s (Morgan Jr.) place. He has this incredible art and these beautiful paintings, so full of vision, his heart and his soul. Recording a song, mixing a song and producing a song can be very much like that. You have different textures, different layers. You want to support the lyrics in a certain way at a certain point in the song. That’s all really fascinating to me. I get really caught up in it. It is an art form.

“Honoring the moment” is a great phrase and the perfect way to describe Landreth’s artistic seriousness. What’s interesting is that Dylan, too, is trying to honor the moment, only his approach — amply documented through interviews and the recollections of his backup musicians — is to move quickly, emphasize spontaneity and discard songs after a couple of takes if the feel still isn’t right. Shaw’s description of “Moonlight” — “It all just flowed together at once, and it was a really beautiful moment” — perfectly sums up what Dylan is after in the studio.

It’s unrealistic, I know, to expect Dylan to meet Landreth’s kind of methodology halfway — it seems inevitable that Dylan’s albums will either be overproduced (Time Out of Mind) or underproduced (“Love and Theft”).  But Dylan, unlike Landreth, is a songbird who often refuses to give his own work the care and attention it deserves.

 

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Blue Monday

Sonny Landreth’s From the Reach, released earlier this year, is guitar-geek heaven. It features some of Landreth’s most accomplished songwriting to date, with the angry “Blue Tarp Blues” adding a welcome note of restrained fury at the drowning of New Orleans, but the biggest draw on any Landreth release is the chance to hear his unique slide guitar technique.  Most of the tunes were written specifically to be played in tandem with certain musicians, such as “The Milky Way Home” (above), which Landreth wrote with Eric Johnson in mind.

Guitar Player sat Landreth down for an interview that ran in the October issue. The talk gets pretty technical at times, but even if you’re not a player you have to appreciate the level of craft and dedication Landreth brings to his music:

What did you have in mind when you wrote “The Milky Way Home” for Eric Johnson?
I heard his tone and signature guitar voice on it, and just got into this notion of having a spread of sound where he was on one side and I was on the other. That set up the approach for the rest of the album. We considered putting the solos dead center or using left and right panning for both players, but having the guest player on one side and me on the other gave a more conversational, call-and-response vibe to the recordings. Also, the overall sound works well because the slide and non-slide parts are different voices that complement each other—I got that from the Allman Brothers. Eric was the first to respond to my invitation, and when that track came back from him about a month later, my engineer and co-producer Tony Daigle put it up on the system and we went, “Man, this is going to be a ride!” The waterfall of sound Eric created on that song was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.

Start taking notes, guitarists. By “the glass,” Landreth means the glass-tube slide he wears on his pinkie while playing:

How did you get that eerie sounding tremololike intro on “Blue Tarp Blues”?
If you put the slide at the 12th fret, then you have all these available tones on the left side of the glass when you’re looking down at it. And if you strum those strings from low to high, you get a completely different kind of sound than you would if you strummed them on the right side of the glass. It’s a more ethereal voicing, and it’s really great for building textures on a track. You can extract those textures by using your right hand finger like a bow on what would be the 24th fret on a Strat—which means that you’re doing it right over the polepieces on the neck pickup. It’s a really interesting technique. There’s a lot going on rhythmically and it excites harmonics in the tones that you normally hear on the right side of the glass. So what you’re hearing is a combination of all those things, plus I’m using my hand to create a tremolo effect. I used a G minor tuning—which is just an open G tuning with the second string dropped down a half step— and the slide was my Dunlop 215 Glass Moonshine, which has a special non-slip coating on the inside that was developed by Terric Lambert of Moonshine Slides.

“Uberesso,” one of the instrumental tracks on the record, deserves to be the “Eruption” of the early 21st century. Apparently Landreth’s been working on the technique for quite some time:

Is the fast staccato picking that you’re doing on “Überesso” a new technique for you?
I’ve been working on that for a couple of years. It was an idea that I could hear in my head, and when I hit on it I was totally amazed at the sound. It required a lot of woodshedding to get that machine-gun precision and I thought, “why couldn’t I figure this out when I was 25 years old?” It’s an interesting technique that produces kind of a collage of sound because the bar at all times is across all six strings. There’s a sympathetic thing going on where you isolate the individual notes within the overtones of the other strings, and that’s what really fascinated me about it.

Here’s Sonny playing “Uberesso” at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival:

The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007 DVD set is very much worth your while, because after the amusing intro from Bill Murray — he whacks away at “Gloria” while Eric Clapton strolls onto the stage — the lead-off spot goes to Sonny, and the camera lets you see all the curious things Landreth does to shape and color his sound. Amazing stuff.

From the Reach has been getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention that’s been long overdue for Sonny Landreth. He’s played behind zydeco master Clifton Chenier, so he knows how to keep a party going, and he’s played behind John Hiatt, so he knows great songwriting. All of those skills come together on this record, and if you’ve never heard Sonny Landreth, From the Reach is the place to start.

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Blue Monday

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who died three years ago at age 81, was a musician’s musician: a distinctive guitarist who was also exceptionally skilled on the fiddle, mandolin, viola, drums, piano and harmonica. He was an admirer of T-Bone Walker who could vault over genre barriers at will, sounding one moment like the reincarnation of antic bandleader Louis Jordan, then settling into lowdown Delta blues. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” was a feature of most of Brown’s sets. Though that versatility won him a fan base that included Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Brown never really garnered the widespread recognition his talents deserved. “I’m so unorthodox, a lot of people can’t handle it,” he once said, and unfortunately he seems to have been right.

These clips highlight Brown’s skills on multiple instruments: the song above, “Dollar Got the Blues,” showcases Brown’s guitar playing (check out all the dents in the wood) while “Song for Renee,” below,” shows him working the violin.

Slide-guitar genius Sonny Landreth played and recorded with Gatemouth a number of times, yet he once said there were some tricks Gatemouth pulled that he could never figure out. When even Sonny Landreth can’t figure out your moves, you are clearly one of the greats.

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Blue Monday

All of Sonny Landreth’s albums are worth checking out, but he kicked things into high, angry gear this year with From the Reach, highlighted by “Blue Tarp Blues,” his denunciation of how Bush & Co. let New Orleans drown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That unhappy anniversary is less than a week away.

“Blue Tarp Blues” was a highlight of Landreth’s performance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The sound in this clip is admittedly a little muddy, but while this doesn’t harm Landreth’s usual fiery playing, it’s the lyrics that warrant close attention:

Air Force One had a heck of a view
Air Force One had a heck of a view
Looking down on the patchwork of the blue tarp blues.

I went a-walkin’ through the water
sprung a leak in my shoes
I went a-walkin’ through the water
sprung a leak in my shoes
that hole in my soul
give me the blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

There’s a crack in the ceiling and the system too
There’s a crack in the ceiling and the system too
But we got full coverage of the blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

No it wasn’t the weather that sank me and you
It was a bad fix of politics, greed and fools
That levee of lies couldn’t hold back the truth
We’re in deep but not out of reach
Throw me somethin’, mister.

I’m gonna fly my colors and watch for you
I’m gonna fly my colors and watch for you
Like a flag of hope, above the blue tarp blues

I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.
I got the blues
I got the blue blue tarp blues.

The lyrics are clearly printed in the booklet accompanying the CD, but every now and then I come across the lyrics on other sites, and I’ve noticed some bowdlerization going on that removes the song’s obvious anger at George W. Bush. Naughty naughty.

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Blue Monday

After a hiatus, Blue Monday returns with a Sonny Landreth two-fer. Here he is at last year’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, doing some pretty incredible fretwork on “Uberesso,” featured on From the Reach:

Not too bad, eh? Here’s another tune from the same festival, “Port of Calling,” which you can find on Grant Street:

If you want to know more, visit the man’s Web site.

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