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On Pursuing Musical Innovation Through Relentless Collaboration
You can walk just about anywhere in Boston and stumble into a good Irish pub. If you’re lucky, it’s a good Irish pub that believes in a clean bar top, a dirty floor, and good tunes.
The Tam O’Shanter used to be that bar.
Located in the heart of Brookline, The Tam – as it was affectionately called by locals – closed down in the late 1990s, but for years it was a pit stop for famous musicians, and a revolving door for the city’s up-and-coming artists.
For Garrett Dutton, current front man of G. Love and Special Sauce, The Tam will always be the place where it all started.
Dutton was a street performer in the early ’90s, when The Tam was winding down, but was eager and willing to play anywhere he could get in. So when a busker buddy of Dutton’s called him to say that the opening band at The Tam had cancelled and asked if he’d like to play that slot, Garrett didn’t think twice.
That night, 25 years ago, Dutton played for a room of about ten people, including the sound guy, the headlining band, the bartender, the cocktail waitress, and her boyfriend.
After his set, Dutton hopped off stage, took a seat at the bar, and struck up a conversation with the waitress’ boyfriend, Jeff Clemens, a drummer. The pair talked for hours.
“He kind of tried to talk me out of trying to make it, for like two hours,” G. Love says. “So I missed the T, and he gave me a ride home. Then we started the band as a two-piece.”
It didn’t stay that way for long, though. Jim Prescott was added soon after. He was also found through The Tam.
“Jeff was running a jazz jam at the Tam, and his one rule at the jam was: no electric basses,” G. Love recalls. “Well Jim was like a rock and roll guy, and he had shaved the frets off his Fender bass and brought it down, and Jeff wouldn’t let him get up. So two months later, he came back with an upright, and Jeff had him get up. I think that was kind of a hot-shot jazz jam at the time, so of all the players that were coming through, Jim was probably the least technically proficient, you know, jazz guy. But he was the most perfect for our music, because he came out of rock and roll, and kind of a jammy sensibility.”
Twenty-five years later, and – unlike The Tam – the guys are still going strong. They just released their 10th studio album, Love Saves The Day, and are planning yet another national tour in 2016.
Their music is fun and funky, jazzy and filled with that jam-band spirit. They sound like what would happen if a rock band was dropped in New Orleans, stripped of their instruments, and told to ‘just figure it out.’ Their newest record is potentially their bluesiest to date, featuring horns, slide guitars and song titles like “Baby Why You Do Me Like That?”
When asked to describe the record in his own words, G. Love immediately says, “Down, Dirty, Blues.” But then he hesitates, thinks, and reconsiders. “Or maybe, ‘trash can blues’ is better.”
It’s funny to think of any record that David Hidalgo or Lucinda Williams is featured on as being “trash can” anything, but when you listen to it from start to finish, you understand exactly what he means. It’s gritty and grungy, unpolished, and totally alive.
As he recalls his current guitar arsenal, G. Love mentions an Airline ’59 3 pickup, a 1970 Les Paul, as his go-to electrics, a Gretsch Black Falcon, and a Gretsch 60th Anniversary for slide, a J-45 for acoustic and a Bohemian Guitar’s Boho for the fun, gritty, oil can blues jams.
But of his guitars, he comments, “I always say that the material possession that’s most dear to me is my 1939 Dobro, which actually, Bo Diddley signed on the back. I ran into him at the airport one day. I literally came around the corner, holding my guitar. I swear to God, I literally almost physically bumped into him. I was like ‘Holy shit! Bo Diddley! Will you sign my guitar?’ and I had a sharpie in my pocket, so he signed it and I walked away.
“And I was like ‘damn, he didn’t even say anything about my guitar!’ I thought at least he would have been like ‘Man, this is a cool Dobro.’ But yeah, it’s a cool, 1939 Dobro. My dad gave it to me when I was 18. So I think it meant a lot to me, for him to give me his blessing with music and the pursuit of music.”
G. Love, now 43, has learned a lot about writing records and creative output over the years. His 10 band albums, and three solo albums have shown him what is possible, musically, and what works, naturally.
He says that the spirit of their records come – aside from the band itself – from the energy that is generated by bringing in the collaborative guests that are featured throughout.
“I always use the analogy of a family dinner where you have guests over,” he explains. “Like, a regular family dinner is good. You need to have those to bond, but that’s kind of where you have that tough love and get at each other or just be bored. But when you have a houseguest over, suddenly everybody’s on their best behavior and they want to show the guest how great they are. It just becomes a different energy. Everybody kind of rises up, steps up their game.”
That challenge to be their personal bests causes each member of the band to come to the table with fresh ideas and the drive to perform during studio time, he says.
The idea has really paid off on the last two records, as G. Love and Special Sauce kickstarted both Love Saves The Day and Sugar (2014) with the help of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) in the studio.
G. Love explains, “David helps us to establish a bar of ‘OK, like, this is how great everything’s got to be the rest of the week.’ Then we have all these different characters coming in, you know, from Citizen Cope, to Lucinda Williams, Ozomatli, and all these people that we have so much respect for. They all bring such a different thing musically. So you kind of go into their world, and bring them into your world, and the result is usually just really fucking awesome.”
Those are the three words that Dutton uses to describe the collaborative process: “Really. Fucking. Awesome.”
He loves working with other artists, he explains. But that doesn’t mean he goes into the studio blind. In fact, Dutton says that many times, he will enter into studio hours with songs already well fleshed-out. The creative process then comes from a pre-recording meeting between the two parties.
“We approach each song with a meeting, which would actually be out in the cutting room,” he explains. “We’d talk about it and say ‘okay this is the arrangement’ and then we’d cut it and talk about it.”
He goes on to explain the process for the title track on Love Saves The Day. Before entering the studio, it was longer with fewer layers. But after the studio sessions, it ended up structurally and lyrically different.
“You have to be able to bend your idea from how it was originally,” he says. “Again, that’s why it’s important to be fluid and flexible. Because you should try everything. Some stuff you know right away is not going to work.”
Over the years, he’s had to scrap a lot of ideas. But many have panned out to become some of his best work. His favorite collaborations to date are Let the Music Play with Ben Harper and Marc Broussard, and This Ain’t Livin’ with Jasper – a street musician friend from Harvard Square. While both come with wild stories of creation and execution, they share the common thread of innovation.
When it comes down to it, that’s really what G. Love and Special Sauce are all about. Whether it’s described as creativity, individuality or freshness is irrelevant. The characteristic that sets this band apart is its need for innovation.
They were the first to really coin the idea of hip-hop blues, they keep their song development fresh by inviting in a revolving door of collaborators, and they continue to expand their musical style, both as individuals and collectively.
Love Saves The Day seems to be the perfect example of that.
“We all feel strongly about this record,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to sell a million copies, because no one buys records. But, might as well go out and show ’em what we’ve got.”
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