From the Reach
review by Bud Scoppa
"From the Reach," Sonny Landreth's ninth album, is the first to be released on his own Landfall label. On it, the Louisiana-based slide guitar wizard does something unprecedented in his body of work, as he collaborates with five of the greatest guitar players on the planet - Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson and Vince Gill - for some jaw-dropping performances. Also making a house call is legendary New Orleans pianist and singer Dr. John and iconic Gulf Coast troubadour Jimmy Buffett.
On the opener, "Blue Tarp Blues," Sonny trades solos with Knopfler, and the aural contrast between Sonny's shimmering slide and the Dire Straits leaders biting Strat is a textural treat. Clapton cuts loose on the following "When I Still Had You," adding his soulful voice to the choruses as well. Slowhand then wails on "Storm Of Worry," a spooky slow blues reminiscent of his Bluesbreakers era.
"The Milky Way Home" is a powerful instrumental rocker that features Eric Johnson on delectably distorted guitar passages that morph into his trademark cello-like sound. "The Goin' On" shifts into a country rock groove, with Vince Gill and Sonny alternating guitar solos and lead vocals. Robben Ford brings his soulful tone and phrasing to "Way Past Long" and "Blue Angel" (the latter with Gill on backing vocals), as Landreth swaps his trusty Strat for a Les Paul. Each of these performances is an extraordinary showcase of brilliant players reacting to each other in supremely inspired fashion.
"I've wanted to make this kind of record for a long time - to do an entire album that would feature some of my favorite players as special guests," says Landreth, who's as articulate as he is virtuosic. "And after all these years, I've gotten to become friends with them, so that addressed the question of, who do you ask? Every one of them wanted to do it, so that really fired me up."
"The other thing was how to do it without it being yet another clich'ed duets' album," he continues. "Then I got the idea to write the songs specifically for each of the artists and that was the real hook for me, as a writer as well as a guitar player. I grew up listening to Eric and Mark, and these other players have influenced me along the way. Not only that, but we all came up listening to a lot of the same music, so we had common ground to work with. Once someone would say yeah, then I had to come up with songs that were worthy of them."
Landreth spent a year writing these songs, and another year putting the album together - a logistical feat of some magnitude considering the fact that every one of the principals, including Landreth, spends considerable time on the road. The process for most of the recording involved two stages. After Landreth had a particular song written, he went in the studio with his band and longtime engineer Tony Daigle and completed the basic tracks, leaving space for the guests. Daigle then sent his mix of the tune to the guest to contribute his or her parts. (The exceptions were the tracks with Gill, which were cut face to face in Nashville, and the one featuring Dr. John, which was recorded in New Orleans.)
"I'd get back these fantastic solos, and I'd go, 'Oh my God, I've gotta re-cut mine!" Sonny recalls with a laugh. He's exaggerating, but he did take a second pass at a couple of his parts.
The final stereo mixes feature Landreth on the left and the other players on the right. "We did it to tap into the conversational aspect of it," Sonny points out. Current technology brought virtually unlimited flexibility to the recording process, but in the end what matters is that the performances truly feel in the moment - even if that moment was actually separated by time and physical distance.
"That was of course the goal with these performances," Sonny confirms. "They've gotta feel right. I was going for the essence of what about these fabulous musicians inspired me to begin with, and that's what I honed in on. I was able to go, 'This sounds like a lick he would do,' and then write that into the arrangement. The guests then had a chance to flesh the concepts out. I really wanted to make sure we captured each of their individual voices on the guitar, and I feel like we did that."
In one of two delightful changes of pace to the album's six-string focus, Dr. John brings the requisite gris-gris to "Howlin' Moon" with his trademark rollicking piano and harmonies, on which he's joined by Jimmy Buffett. "Although the central idea of the record was playing with my guitar heroes, I wanted to be open to the unexpected as well," Sonny explains. "I'd written 'Howlin' Moon' a long time ago, and I always had Dr. John in mind for it. Then we took it a step further with Jimmy's vocal and the vibe was perfect."
As for the rest, "Let It Fly," a slice of exotica so warm that sweat drips off it, features backing vocals from Buffett discovery Nadirah Shakoor. The title of "Uberesso," a blistering instrumental from Landreth and his band, was inspired by Sonny's passion for espresso. The album closes with the metaphysical ballad "Universe," as Gill adds his glorious voice to the goosebump finale.
Anchoring the grooves is Landreth's touring rhythm section featuring longtime musical partner Dave Ranson on bass and Mike Burch on drums. Steve Conn, another regular, is on keyboards. Sam Broussard plays acoustic guitar on "Universe" and "Let It Fly."
As for the intriguing album title, "I thought about it a lot," says Sonny. "One of the most interesting things to me in the songwriting process is letting it cook and bubble and see what comes up to the top. As I was writing these songs, the word 'reach' kept coming up, and 'reach' is a pretty powerful word. Aside from the obvious meanings, it can refer to a body of water. And the water imagery kept appearing as well, so it's like this is what came up out of this whole project for me. What would happen if I invited all these people; where would this take me? I literally reached out to them, and they graciously came on board. Then there was the impact locally of Hurricane Katrina. So the title is the result of all of the above. It's coming from an honest place."
The same could be said of everything this one-of-a-kind artist has done in his single-minded career.