By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Bands like G. Love and Special Sauce ain't so special now, as though they ever were. Love and the boys are just another blues-folk-rap trio, a combo too often heard in the form of mediocre white guys fumbling for grace, soul, and wit. It's a concept that's neither promising on paper nor fulfilling in reality -- except when it comes to G. Love and Special Sauce. Maybe G. Love's charm is a result of the band's organic growth: They never busted into the mainstream (though "Cold Beverage," from their self-titled 1994 debut, almost got them there), their frontman never became a teen idol, and they still seem sincere about incorporating into their music such niceties as soulful songwriting and honest expression. Admittedly, G. Love (real name: Garrett Dutton) is not the most articulate, sharp lyricist, but even when the rhymes seem forced or the tales taller than Goliath, one never doubts that he means what he says. This music is all heart, which should count for something when today's most marketable acts smirk through their entire catalog.
From the first note, Dutton acknowledged his idols, giving credit to such influences as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Booker T. Jones, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. And he did his best to sound like all of them at once, even though many people thought he sounded more like Beck, another white boy who had the blues and a few breakbeats. The debut is still the group's finest album, mainly because it was recorded live, capturing the band at its best. Their sophomore disc, 1995's Coast to Coast Motel, was just as undressed -- and, unfortunately, it was also almost completely stripped of the hip-hop that so pleasantly tempered the straightforward blues of the first album.
The 1997 follow-up, Yeah, It's That Easy, moved even further away from the sound on G. Love and Special Sauce, and marked the beginning of Dutton's collaboration with artists other than his two main men, upright bass player, Jimi "Jazz" Prescott and drummer Jeffrey "Houseman" Clemens. On Easy, Dr. John showed up on piano and organ, along with backing vocalists BroDeeva and the All Fellas Band. These extras sometimes only clutter the mix, crooning unnecessarily over Dutton's typically unadorned rapping. Still, Easy offered up the funkiest turn in G. Love's history, the taut title track. The latest album, Philadelphonic, which again has help from BroDeeva, shows that the group has learned to work with others. It doesn't suffer from the accompaniment of additional artists, only from Dutton's occasionally weak lyrics. Nevertheless, it hits the G. spot as far as sonic strength and warmth are concerned. And, as always, the album closes with an acoustic G. Love solo, "Gimme Some Lovin'." It's a sweet classic, sort of a reminder that G. Love still keeps it real -- even if it's real old.
That warmth carries over into the trio's live show as well. In 1997, G. Love performed here, and despite the shortcomings of the newer material, the dude rocked the house like a houseboat. G. Love's hybrid of hip-hop (frisky beats and rhythms) and blues (jangly, raw electric guitar plus front-porch harmonica) translates to a cathartic, floor-stomping performance. From the group's most characteristic and memorable song, "Baby's Got Sauce" off the debut, to newer ones such as "Stepping Stones" from Easy, the trio played long and hard, with strength, passion, and spunk. This is the kind of music that demands a live audience. Expect plenty of soloing, a fistful of improv, and grooves tighter than spandex.