submitted by Bill Thames, Florida
In an age of musicians with egos as big as the Grand Canyon, meeting a genuine guitar slinging gentleman who has talent as big as the state of Louisiana, with no ego attached, is truly astounding. I met such a man Friday evening in Tampa, Florida at an eclectic restaurant and outdoor amphitheater called Skipper's Smokehouse. It was one of the most magical musical evenings that I have ever enjoyed, and believe me, I have enjoyed quite a few.
I found out about Sonny through the proverbial back door. A few years ago while searching the web to try and glean some information about one of my favorite old bands, Goose Creek Symphony, my musical journey lead me to a small website that handled primarily independent music called Songs.com. Sadly, Songs.com doesn't exist anymore…that's a story in itself. Anyway, on Songs.com, I found Goose Creek. While browsing the site I also found a CD that seemed interesting by someone that I had never heard of before by the name of Steve Conn. What the hell, it was only fifteen bucks…why not give it a try?
Let me tell you, Steve's music struck a nerve with me and the wound just won't heal! I couldn't get enough. I listened to his CD "River of Madness" nonstop for hours. It was some of the most remarkable music I had heard in many years.
The very next day I wrote to the Webmaster at Songs.com and told him that my Mother, her seven sisters and her two brothers were from Louisiana and my own sister had been born in New Orleans, but I had never been there. After listening to Steve Conn's CD, though, I had a pretty good idea what to expect when and if I got to Louisiana. To my surprise, he forwarded the e-mail to Steve Conn and Steve shot me off the nicest reply. Steve and I started to correspond and naturally the topic of most of our missives was, and is, music. Steve has turned me on to some incredible musicians. One day I asked him about the awesome slide player on his CD. "Why that's my old friend, Sonny Landreth," he replied. "You don't know about Sonny Landreth?" Well, my education began…
Unfortunately, I found out something very disturbing. Either you are a musician or fan and you worship the ground that Sonny walks on, or sadly you have never heard of Sonny Landreth. Well…almost, and Genny is helping to change that.
A few weeks ago I mentioned to Steve that Sonny was playing in Tampa and that my wife and I were going to try and get over to the show. It would be our first live Sonny Landreth show.
As busy as Steve Conn was, at that time, with huge family obligations and working on a new CD of his own, he called Sonny and asked him to look out for Patti and I. Steve Conn, like Sonny, is quite a guy and he put together an evening that could have not been any more perfect.
Tampa is a three-hour drive from Daytona and we weren't really sure exactly how to get to the club so we had to leave work a little early. My wife and I own our business and playing hooky for a musical event is one of our favorite activities. We got to Tampa at about 6:00PM with our son and his girlfriend, and another couple that we invited to the show. We mentioned our name at the door and were immediately given the royal treatment.
Skippers Smokehouse is probably one of the most unique places that I have ever heard a concert. It's a little hard to explain but it looks like an open-air amphitheater with a wooden fence/wall all around the outside edge with huge moss covered oak trees inside growing up among the tables. The stage is very rustic and set in the middle of one side. "Tables" of sorts are maybe 18" wide and connected in a semicircle radiating away from the stage with picnic style benches behind to sit on, after the show started…to stand on! There were two bars and a buffet food line set-up for those that were hungry. Very rustic, very swampy looking, with tons of atmosphere, but designed that way…very charming in a backwoods kind of way. Skipper's Smokehouse looked very much like something right out of Levee Town.
Bills friends and Family enjoy a night of great music and fun at the Smokehouse
(L-R) Bill's wife Patti, friends Robbie and Paula Boone, Kim Kennedy, and his son Billy Thames
Sonny and the band had already done their sound check and had left for dinner when we had gotten there and they didn't get back to Skippers until just before the show. Our group had dinner, a few adult beverages, and relaxed until it was time for the opening act. The openers, "Chef Chris and his Nairobi Trio" came all the way from Detroit and started a little before 8:00PM. They were a great warm-up band and had everyone jumping before Sonny took the stage.
I only got to talk to Sonny briefly before his show though, he seemed more interested in making sure that we were well taken care of then getting ready for the show. His demeanor really impressed me. He thanked me over and over for coming to the show and apologized for not having more time to talk, but he definitely wanted to see us all after the show. A little final tuning and we were off to Levee Town in Sonny's Zydecoldsmobile.
Sonny's playing made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. My mind kept taking me back 35 years, watching Duane Allman play then Sonny would make a run up the fret board and jerk me back across time and space. Watching him play and feeling each and every note was like a religious experience.
The entire crowd was on their feet from the first song. Sonny spoke to the crowd like he was talking to relatives at a family reunion. He had total command of the audience and soon he had everyone in a Mardi Gras mood! Sonny truly set fire to the stage but the kindling was the back-up band, Kenneth Blevens on drums and David Ranson on bass guitar. They were both extremely gracious and very personable. While Sonny was busy changing tunings between songs the bass player would step to the front of the stage and talk to the audience as if he were giving a seminar at home depot. A fine time was enjoyed by all.
Skipper's is such an intimate venue that it was easy for me to get over on the side of the stage, with my camera, just to the right of Sonny while he played. Some of the shots turned out pretty well. From that vantage point, I could watch Sonny as he captured the imagination of the crowd and took them on a musical trip up the Mississippi. Playing his signature "Slydeco" style the fingering, fretwork, and picking were smooth, fluid and exciting. I can truthfully say that I have never seen anything like it in my life, but the best was yet to come…
About two thirds of the way through the show Sonny slipped into something musically, a little more comfortable. First he played a soulful rendition of one of my all time favorite blues songs, "Key to the Highway." When he made a switch to the blues, his playing took on a more powerful and emotional feel. The crowd could sense it and they came even more alive. People who may have been sitting, talking in the back immediately felt the electricity and moved forward. Then there was a hush over the crowd. I think that even Sonny was taken back by the intensity of the way the people were listening. I haven't seen a crowd so mesmerized and intently listening to a performer in years. He continued on, with several cuts from his new CD that is supposed to be released early next year. It seems to me that Sonny is more at ease, more at home when he is playing blues. It seems to be where he just naturally wants to be. It could be the fact that he has been working on his new blues CD so intently but I think that he just feels more comfortable playing with the emotion and power that the blues demands.
The crowd wouldn't let them leave…literally. The band played two encores. Thankfully they played "Congo Square" which is an all-time favorite of mine from "South of I-10." Haunting doesn't begin to cover the feeling that song evokes every time I hear it!
When they finally finished playing, Sonny talked to each and every autograph seeker and fan, intently, and carefully, answering questions and posing for pictures, until everyone was satisfied and the crowd was gone. Finally he looked over at Patti and I, smiled and said, "Well, you stuck around, you must have liked it?"
Bill with Sonny at Skippers Smokehouse, Tampa Florida 11/01/02
What an understatement. We were so impressed by his playing that we could hardly speak but still, we felt as if we were among life-long friends. Then, it struck me like a New Orleans bouncer; I realized what it was that I was feeling from the moment that I first met Sonny but couldn't put a finger on it. It came across in his music, in his voice, and in everything that he did. It was so simple yet so remarkable. Sonny was just as delighted to see each and every person at the show, as we were to see him! That's Sonny's charm…he's a genuine person, not a celebrity.
What an amazing human being, and how lucky for us that he plays the music that we love.