[12 July 2009]
When Sonny Landreth first released Levee Town in 2000, the general public perceived Louisiana bayou country as swampland with gators, peopled by colorful backwoods characters that ate spicy foods, liked to party, and engaged in weird voodoo practices. Landreth played off that view. He wrote songs that fit in with those observations rather than challenged them.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Suddenly songs about levees breaking and floods didn’t seem so fun anymore. Listening to the reissue of Landreth’s songs about the southland in light of recent events reveals that the dark side of bayou life on the edge of poverty was present in his material. The production glossed over these facets to highlight the good-time elements inherent in living on the margins of society, but Landreth certainly understood the details of hard times.
First, we need to acknowledge the sound of Landreth’s slide guitar playing. Indeed, he’s a true master of the instrument, one who makes the strings reverberate in a way that makes fans like Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, and Buddy Guy sing his praises. Trying to describe Landreth’s sound with words is like trying to explain the wonders of a sunset to a blind person. All one can do is explain how it makes a person feel. Landreth makes his strings shimmer in a way that evokes laughing and crying at the same time. He can be earthy one minute and sparkling the next while playing the same note, as his fingers cause the vibrations to ring.
Landreth’s slide guitar playing is the star of the record. While the songwriting ranges from adequate to quite clever, without Landreth’s wondrous accompaniment, the album would be much less impressive. He turns the Zydeco-based music here into something that reveals the depth and pathos of the culture, while simultaneously making dance music that makes one want to celebrate. The two instrumentals, “Spider-Gris” and “Z. Rider”, are among the best tunes on the disc because Landreth is able to say more with his fingers than his vocals. That’s not meant to disparage his voice or lyrics, just to laud his instrumental talents.
By the way, four out of the five bonus tracks on the reissue are instrumentals recorded from the same time period, and they are all first-rate. One has to wonder why they weren’t included on the original release, but this probably had to do with some person’s misguided understanding of what was commercial. The other bonus track also kicks butt. “For Who We Are (The Night Bird Sings)” is a slow-burning duet with Jennifer Warnes that offers a sultry take on romance between two travelers who have met after years of romance. Again, Landreth’s guitar work movingly sets the tone.
The songs on the original disc showcase Landreth’s fine instrumental talents, and his self-penned lyrics reveal he was always aware of what was going on underneath the surface sheen of Zydeco good time music. As he sings on the title tune, he knows that when the levee breaks, all hell will come loose. Death and destruction will reign. That’s the very reason for partying. Enjoy life now, because the future is bleak. Woo-hoo!