I first heard Sonny Landreth when he was playing behind John Hiatt. The Goners, of which Landreth is a member, have logged a lot of road time as Hiatt’s backup band. Landreth is a hired gun, a sideman whose abilities are well known to Hiatt’s fans and fans of slide guitar in general. His underground popularity earned him a solo spot in Hiatt’s set. When it came time, Landreth delivered what is for him the usual: a stunning algorithm of fingerings coupled with slide dexterity.
There is something fundamental in the sound of a simple bar chord made with slide guitar in open tuning that speaks to a listener at the chromosomal level. Slide guitar became ingrained in American listening culture during the 1920s as part of the blues written along the Mississippi Delta. Performers used implements such as the back of a knife blade or the neck of a broken glass bottle to slide over the frets of a guitar. The technique produced a jittery, unstable sound that was often used to paraphrase the singer. By the 1940s a guitarist named Elmore James was playing molten, fizzing solos through his overburdened amplifier that became the sound of slide guitar today. After that, slide no longer took a supporting role. Duane Allman may get the credit for introducing slide to rock, but Johnny Winter, the guitar slinger from Texas, understood better than anyone the crude sexual urgency that slide guitar could invoke.
Sonny Landreth, 57, from Louisiana, actually improved on what everyone else was doing when he discovered that he could finger ahead of the slide — meaning that he could add extra notes where none had thought possible. Landreth has continued to reinvent what began as a simple porch music nearly a century ago.
SONNY LANDRETH, Anthology, Friday, May 30, and Saturday, May 31, 7:30 and 9 p.m. 619-595-0300. $15 to $35.