Originally released in 2000 by the bluegrass-oriented Sugar Hill Records label, Sonny Landreth's Levee Town was a milestone in the artist's career. Landreth's six-string skills had never been in question, and his slide-guitar work is especially distinctive, complex, and electrifying.
With Levee Town, however, Landreth really hit his stride as a songwriter and storyteller. Ostensibly a song-cycle about life in the Deep South (specifically his native Louisiana), Landreth's poetic imagery captures the visual aspects of the area with a precise eye while his musical backdrop perfectly paints the sounds of southwest Louisiana.
Sonny Landreth's Levee Town
Levee Town opens with the title track, a spry tale of life in the wake of the flood, Landreth's slinky slide-guitar snaking through the story like a hungry copperhead while the song's characters choose the joy of life over the potential despair of disaster. The brilliant, introspective "This River" is a bit more philosophical, Landreth reflecting over the power and majesty of the Mississippi River while his guitar rings loud like a morning thunderstorm.
Landreth's thinly-veiled treatise on romance, "Love & Glory," is gussied up with some fancy language and two-dollar words, but the song's true spirit comes through nonetheless. Spider-Gris and Evangeline are two priceless characters, their conversation scored by Landreth's filigree guitarplay, the bittersweet fiddle of BeauSoliel's Michael Doucet, and warm backing vocals from Jennifer Warnes and Herb Pedersen.
Turning With The Century
The bluesy "Broken Hearted Road" opens with some Delta-dirty acoustic guitar before sliding into a greasy New Orleans-flavored country-blues stomp, Landreth's Son House-inspired fretwork accompanied by a simple walking rhythm. About half-way through, Landreth just cuts loose with a dynamic, fuzztone-rattling electric solo that denies any who would question the guitarist's blues roots and mastery of the form.
The thoughtful "Turning With The Century" is a fine example of Landreth's songwriting chops. With imaginative lyrics, he tells of time catching up with the languid nature of the South, the passing of the years slowing having an impact, Landreth's flamethrower guitar riffs driving the message home. The album-closing "Deep South" is an epic six-minute jam with an inspired vocal performance, hearty percussion work, judicious use of horns, descriptive lyrics and, of course, Landreth's razor-sharp guitarwork cutting like a barbed-wire garrote.
More Tracks From Levee Town
The expanded edition of Levee Town comes with a bonus disc that includes five tracks recorded during the original sessions for the album, but which didn't quite make the cut. Truthfully, all five are good enough to have expanded the original Levee Town into a two-disc set to begin with. "Pedal To Metal" is an energetic boogie-rock instrumental with plenty of New Orleans flavor sprinkled in. Landreth's duet with Warnes on "For Who We Are (The Night Bird Sings)" is simply stunning, the contrast between their two voices paralleled by a gorgeous guitar tone.
"Old Flame" is another stellar instrumental that displays the full range of Landreth's talents, his raging tone complimented by Steve Conn's keyboard fills, while "Road A Plenty" is a houserockin' juke-joint stomp with a hypnotic guitar performance that will jump right from the grooves and grab you by the ears. Also an instrumental, "Fare You Well" offers a textured, multi-faceted performance that shifts tempos and sounds and provides an odd, calming effect. I would have liked to have seen these five "bonus tracks" incorporated with the original album, the instrumentals intertwining with the vocal songs to create a sort of interlude between stories.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Make no mistake about it; Sonny Landreth is a phenomenal guitarist who adds life to anything he puts his strings down on. But he is also an accomplished, if too often unheralded, songwriter with a good eye and ear and the ability to weave words into an engaging story.
Spiced up with his typical musical mix of roots-rock, blues, and Zydeco, and with more clever fretwork than you'll get out of just about any so-called "guitar hero" these days, Levee Town is a perfect documentation of Sonny Landreth's multitude of skills. Reissued by his own Landfall Records label, and with the additional bonus tracks, ol' Sonny done went and made a great album even better. If you haven't heard it, get it, and if you haven't heard of Landreth, well...shame on you! (Landfall Records, released April 21, 2009)