Hearing the first bars of ‚ÄúGaia Tribe,‚ÄĚ the opening track for Sonny Landreth‚Äôs Elemental Journey, I was reminded of some of my favorite ‚Äė70s guitar instrumentals. As the strong, muscular melodies of the album progressed, I kept thinking of Ritchie Blackmore‚Äôs ‚ÄúStill I‚Äôm Sad,‚ÄĚ Ronnie Montrose‚Äôs ‚ÄúTown Without Pity,‚ÄĚ and Eric Johnson‚Äôs ‚ÄúCliffs of Dover.‚ÄĚ Not surprisingly, Johnson himself is one of the guests on Landreth‚Äôs 11th album, repeating what the duo did together on 2008‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Milky Way Home.‚ÄĚ
But what might surprise Landreth fans is that this all-instrumental collection doesn‚Äôt sound like the slide virtuoso‚Äôs trademark Southern blues. There‚Äôs nothing here to evoke his work with Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, or John Hiatt. Rather, it‚Äôs an exhibition of melodic guitar showmanship that‚Äôs, well, very reminiscent of classic rock anthems from the mid-'70s. Of course, the more direct influences are from contemporary events in Landreth‚Äôs home region of Mississippi and Louisiana. These include Landreth‚Äôs responses to Katrina, Rita, and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The basic players have been with Landreth for some time. Dave Ranson (bass) and Steve Conn (keyboards) are joined by alternating drummers Brian Brignac, Doug Belote, and Mike Burch. In addition, Joe Satriani contributed much of the fire in ‚ÄúGaia Tribe,‚ÄĚ Johnson added his unique lyrical lines to ‚ÄúPassionola,‚ÄĚ and Robert Greenidge hammers on his steel drums to the Trinidad-flavored ‚ÄúForgotten Story.‚ÄĚ Five tracks are also supported by members of Lafayette‚Äôs Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Mariusz Smolij.
As Landreth observed in publicity for the album, when there is no singing voice, the themes have to be even stronger to inspire imagery. Intentionally, Landreth‚Äôs layered approach allows for musical dialogue between the instruments that often becomes subtle and sophisticated interplay. While one guitar lead goes in one direction, another theme provides a juxtaposition drawn from a different style entirely. For example, ‚ÄúWonderide‚ÄĚ begins with a zydeco foundation that spins off into finger-picking classical guitar forms. ‚ÄúFor You And Forever‚ÄĚ sounds like a guitar and fiddle trade leads before turning into a more overtly jazz performance.