Commonly known as the ‘King of Slydeco’, legendary American blues guitarist Sonny Landreth has earned the respect of some of music’s greatest artists including Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Clifton Chenier and Jimmy Buffet, all whom have called on Landreth for his slide guitar wizardry. After a dozen acclaimed albums, the virtuoso guitarist and bandleader recently found himself at an artistic crossroads. The way Sonny decided to fix that situation was to record a career-spanning double-live album. Today (June 30) Landreth released ‘Recorded Live in Lafayette’, a 16-song opus that covers more musical ground than any single album ever could, as the singer and songwriter’s work stretches and twists across 93 minutes of full-band acoustic and electric bottleneck lightning.
From his home in Louisiana, Sonny spoke with Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips about his career and the new live album.
Hi Sonny, was this album recorded at just one performance or was it recorded over several shows?
We actually had 3 nights. There’s a really nice theatre in downtown Lafayette so it made it great for logistics. My engineer’s facility is close by with all his gear. We ended up taking the best show of the three. Most of it was the third night. Three times a charm I guess.
How difficult was it coming up with the set list for the performance?
We went into the recording with 2 weeks of gigs leading up to it so we had a good idea of what would work and what wouldn’t. More than anything, it was deciding which songs would be the acoustic. The electric ones were pretty well defined. We had a pretty good idea of that. But that’s where it got interesting. I just felt like some of those songs had a better chance to speak if they were acoustic sounding
The guys you play with on this album you have known for quite a while. Do you still have moments on stage where you surprise each other with notes choices?
Oh yeah, all the time. That’s why I asked these guys, especially Sam Broussard on guitar and Steve Conn on keys, they are always surprising me man. That’s what i love about them.
Normally when you do a concert, you’d do a soundcheck and the sound guys would take a long time getting the sound right. How much additional time and energy was spent miking and sound checking for this recording.
We did go in the day before, that was really crucial. You want to go through that and get as much sorted out as possible. The last thing you want is feedback and second guessing yourself in performance. So doing it the way we did, we could concentrate on doing what we’re supposed to do. So we set up the day before, did soundcheck then we went back and had a listen. It was a good way to do it and another reason for doing it close to home.
Tell me about the instruments you used on the album. Did you use instruments in this show that you wouldn’t normally? Did you bring out the good stuff that you don’t travel with?
Yes actually the acoustic guitars. One of them is a Larry Pogreba ‘hubcap’ resonator. It’s really cool, has an aluminium body, it’s on the cover of the album. He uses these old hubcaps for vintage guitars and they look really cool but I fell in love with the sound of it. The other one is a Beltona electro acoustic guitar that Mark Knopfler gave me many years ago.
How much experimentation did you go through with gear before you arrived at the electric guitar tone that you have now. I just love your guitar tones on this album …
Oh man I am still workin’ on that. It’s a work in progress. A lot of years and a lot of work on all of that and trying different things. I have always enjoyed doing that. It can be frustrating of course. I have way too many pedals and piles of gear. Sorting through it and finding what I like is the great thing about taking it on the road, you can learn real quick what works and what doesn’t. It’s the tried and true that you settle on. I have a pretty good set up now and can take my basic pedal set up and use it in almost any situation.
Have you changed pickups much along the way?
Oh year a lot of that. I have found that with a lot of tunings that I use… with the higher tunings as I call them, I like certain pickups and even the maple neck for those on the Strat. And for the slat tunings in G and D, I prefer single coil and rosewood boards.
You’ve recorded live albums before. Is it difficult to know how much audience noise to leave in the mix?
That’s the easy part. Actually what is more difficult is finding those moments where the audience and the band are really locked in a certain energy. That’s why I think the third night probably did it more than the others because there is a lot more energy in the room. You can feel it in the tracks.
What are your favourite live albums to listen to?
There’s been a lot in the past, some jazz albums. The classic one is The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore. I think that one is a milestone and one to compare. I always loved how The Allmans were so great at improvising and not being afraid to take chances. We lost Gregg recently and I was thinking about that when it all went down and we sure miss him.
Do you remember seeing or hearing slide guitar for the first time?
Yeah the first I heard it was on the delta blues albums. I didn’t even know what it was when I was much younger and then I started reading about it and trying to decipher what it was, what it meant. We used to go back to my family in Mississippi in the summer time. There was a local bluesman on the TV and I saw what he was doing and heard that sound and thought, oh man that is the same thing. Unfortunately I didn’t have people to hear but at the same time I think that was an advantage because it helped me to hear things on my own and come from a different perspective and develop my own sound.
Do you have a large collection of slides and are there any that have particularly sentimental value to you?
Yes, embarrassingly I’ve got a lot of slides. But yeah there’s a few. There’s a glass blower, a friend of mine that made some for me and he passed away and those mean a lot to me and they’re beautiful and smooth. I particularly like using them in the studio with acoustic guitars.
Derek Trucks was telling me he has one of Duane Allman’s old coricidin bottles that he treasures.
Yeah there’s big mojo there.
Are there differences playing slide on acoustic and electric guitar?
With electric of course sustain is not a problem, anyone will tell you that but I think even more… it’s the actual decay and it’s the timing and phrasing and what happens in between notes that you don’t have on the acoustic. On the other hand, those harmonics project differently on the acoustic and the electric and that’s what I try to capture. It was a bit of work for me. Many years ago I played acoustic guitar exclusively for a couple of years, I didn’t even pick up an electric guitar. I was definitely at one with all of that and I found that when we got into this project and started to prepare for it, I thought, man I don’t have what I used to have and I realised that the position of my hand had changed slightly in such a way that the attack was different. So I had to go back and rethink that a little bit to get that to feel smooth again.
Did the sound guys have to make many adjustments when you went from the acoustic set to the electric in these recordings?
Well I think you do anyway. Mostly what I like is to really make the most of the fact that we have multiple mics and the pickup on the guitar itself which is a vintage Tyson pickup. I Iove that thing in the neck position. It is so microphonic, it is picking up characteristics of the resonator and aluminium body in the Pogreba for example that I would have never thought. We went into the studio before we went out on the road to experiment and to see what potential there was. We found that layering the pickup with the microphones and also from my amp … there’s a split signal from my guitar into the di and into my pedalboard into my amp and that’s where it gets really interesting. You can bring up characteristics of each of those at any given time. A good example would be on one of the songs Bound By the Blues. What I discovered was that aluminium body has much more of a steel drum sound to it when I added chorus. So we brought the level of that up and up until we got that vibe. I have never been able to achieve anything like that on guitar before.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
To accept the patience, that it’s small steps. You look to place the goals but there are short term goals and long range goals and in a way I figured that out because I had teachers earlier on in school. I actually started out on trumpet when I was ten, that was my first instrument. That probably helped me a lot in terms of thinking of the different ways of phrasing on guitars. So maybe I wish I could have let myself off the hook a little bit more without beating myself up too much. I’ve always set a high bar of excellence but again, that’s what pushes you. I got to hear really amazing players early on. When I was 16 years old I heard BB King, Jimi Hendrix and Clifton Chenier. I heard all three within a year and that was a profound experience and those experiences will happen if you let them. To recognise them is really important. So that is something I would say to myself.
Do you have a bucket list of musical projects that you still want to get to?
Yeah, I am always thinking about that. I love working with other people and actually, some of the studio work I have done has led to other projects and I do love the synchronicity of that. I mentioned Mark Knopfler earlier, I’d like he and I to get back together to work on a project, that would be cool.
Will we see you in Australia any time soon?
Oh man, I would love to come back down there. I have only been once. We played the Byron Bay festival and always want to come back. It’s why I’m doing these interviews, to try and set that up, so yeah we’re coming back.
What’s on for the rest of year?
We just back from Brazil where we played the Samsung Blues Festival. We’re going to Poland soon then back to the UK and The Netherlands, getting back to some places we have played before. We’re doing the gigs the same as the recordings, playing an acoustic set then have a break and come back and do the electric. I really like the dynamic of playing like that.
Sonny Landreth- Recorded Live in Lafayette out now
RECORDED LIVE IN LAFAYETTE
Disc 1 – Acoustic
1. Blues Attack
2. Hell At Home
3. Key To The Highway
4. Creole Angel
5. A World Away
6. The High Side
7. Bound By The Blues
8. The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile
Disc 2 – Electric
1. Back To Bayou Teche
2. True Blue
3. The Milky Way Home
4. Brave New Girl
6. Soul Salvation
7. Walkin’ Blues
8. The One And Only Truth