Sonny Landreth tours with an electric rhythm section, but Tuesday night found him in a quieter duo with Austin, TX steel guitarist and former Asleep at the Wheel member, the wonderfully-named Cindy Cashdollar.
By Brett Milano
Sonny Landreth is a guitar hero for people who hates guitar heroics. In other words, he’s an expressive player rather than a shredder; his technical chops are almost beside the point — If you saw him at the Rhythm & Roots Festival a couple weeks after Hurricane Katrina, you know how sad a slide guitar can sound. He thinks lyrically even when he plays instrumentals, so it makes sense that his first mainstream exposure came with John Hiatt, a songwriter who’s all about deep meanings (Lately he’s also been seen with a rowdier troubadour, Jimmy Buffett). And Landreth’s elegant licks always come with a sense of place: His home of South Louisiana, referenced both in his lyrics and his distinctly swampy tone.
He usually tours with an electric rhythm section, but Tuesday night (at Boston’s Regattabar) found Landreth in a quieter duo with Austin, TX steel guitarist and former Asleep at the Wheel member, the wonderfully-named Cindy Cashdollar. But instead of fusing Landreth’s swamp rock with Cashdollar’s Western swing, they wound up sticking mainly with one thing they have in common: The blues. Without a rhythm section, there wasn’t much room for them to explore in tandem; instead, they took turns holding down the rhythm while the other soloed. A bassist and drummer might have pushed them to less familiar territory, but these players’ comfort zone isn’t a bad place to hang out.
Landreth opened the night solo, and guitar geeks had a chance to study his tricks: He uses a pick only on his thumb, and tends to hammer hard with the thumb-pick on the aggressive bits (a technique also used quite a bit by Jeff Beck). He also plays with his entire picking hand, stroking his palm over the strings while upping the distortion to produce a crying tone. Those tricks are easy enough to copy, but not everyone can make them sound as celebratory as Landreth did on “South of I-10,” his homage to the Lafayette dancehalls. His stage patter, as usual, was a model of understatement: After opening the night with an instrumental whose languid tone again brought the South to mind, he intoned, “Well, there’s the first one.”
With Cashdollar in tow, the set turned to blues standards by Robert Johnson (“Walking Blues”) and Skip James (“Cherry Ball Blues”). The two guitarists best meshed on “Key to the Highway,” a tune originally by Big Bill Broonzy but since identified with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s two-guitar showcase on the Layla album (“Pretty much all my heroes have done this one,” Landreth offered). Cashdollar took the first solo on dobro, giving it a carefree feel. Landreth then took the music to a darker place, hammering some ominous low notes before wailing in the high registers. More exchanges followed, with the upbeat mood gradually winning out, just in time for the singer to get back on the highway.
No denying that South-evoking music sounds especially sweet on a brittle night in Boston. But as Cashdollar reminded the near-full crowd, “It’s pretty cold tonight where we come from too.”
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.