With a little help from some new friends, Fixin’ to Die is the best studio recording of G. Love’s career. Sure, over the course of what is now nearly a 20-year tenure, he’s recorded some damn fine, classic CDs and songs; the eponymous major label debut G. Love & Special Sauce featuring “Baby’s Got Sauce” and “Cold Beverages” in particular, put the Philadelphia by way of Boston band on the map. After being released from his contract with Sony after just four LPs, his career bounced back in 2004 when longtime friend, fan and fellow musician Jack Johnson signed Love to Johnson’s own fledgling record label, Brushfire Records and released The Hustle.
G. Love, (birth name Garrett Dutton) first met Scott and Seth Avett (AKA the Avett Brothers) in Boston, then again when both acts performed at the Summer Camp music festival in 2010, forging a friendship over a mutual affinity of live performance, traditional Americana and blues music. Soon, it was decided that Scott and Seth would not only be producing Love’s new recording, but the Avett Brothers band would collaborate as his backing band.
Indeed, sans Special Sauce, (with the exception of drummer Jeffery “The Houseman” Clemens, used on five tracks) it’s a different record from what G. Love fans might expect. Love’s affinity for hip-hop inflection is replaced with a more sincere, singer-songwriter or bluesman vocal delivery. While he’s recorded and released a country record previously, this collection is rooted in the mid-Atlantic Appalachia of the Avett Brothers; banjo, upright bass, and dobro abound, amidst vigorous hand and foot percussion. And it’s mostly an acoustic record with very little electric guitar. That said, he plays harmonica in just about every track. And despite a sense of loss that pervades most of the album, it retains his effervescent mannerisms. So it’s certainly recognizable as G. Love, just in a distinctive context.
Throughout his career, he’s been a purveyor of the blues, which is prevalent here as well. The opening title cut is a cover of Booker “Bukka” Whites blues standard. As when Bob Dylan recorded a cover of the song in 1963, the G. Love and Avett collaboration brings the classic new life. You feel the Avett influence here with the floorboard rattling foot stomping and hand clapping percussion of this juke joint, Delta blues rocker and verses traded between Love and each brother. On his cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “You’ve Got to Die”, Love’s dobro adds stinging harmony.
His own “Get Going”—originally recorded on the …Has Gone Country album—is given a up-tempo barnburner update ala Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and features some scintillating electric leads and rich, churning Hammond B3 organ swells. One of his oldest songs, “Ma Mere” sticks pretty close to the original recording however, with gently brushed drums and twangy steel guitar, while the lovely “Heaven” is a back porch blues ode to an angel living next door, Love effortlessly plucking it out solo on guitar and tapping his feet in rhythm.
While lyrically rooted in the blues, “The Road” and “Home” are both upbeat, catchy, toe-tapping Appalachian melodies that convey the loneliness of being away from a loved one. On the former, Scott Avett feathers the verses with meticulously strummed banjo, while on the latter, Seth’s affectionate tenor sweetly echo Love’s. And “Walk on” is another track rooted deep in the hill country of North Carolina, where Fixin’ to Die was recorded, with an ebullient and soulful melody played on banjo, piano and acoustic guitar. “Katie Miss” is an achingly beautiful ballad that blends Scott’s lulling tender banjo, Seth’s soothing backing vocals and Love’s nylon stringed guitar in glorious, perfect three-part harmony.
With percussive and rhythmic handclaps and deep, thumping upright bass, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” is given a funky, Southern boogie makeover, replete with a barrelhouse bridge sure to kick up some dust. The CD closing cover of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground classic “Pale Blue Eyes” is done in pure, Appalachian string band fashion, with dulcet cello and gently plucked banjo, and Love’s melancholy vocals reflective of Reeds’.
Despite its dour title, Fixin’ to Die is G. Love’s most cohesive and listenable CD from the opening to the closing track. The 13 songs here beg and plead for further collaborations among the Avetts and G. Love and hopefully, with any luck, a summer festival tour or co-bill with everyone on stage playing these songs live.