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A groovy sauce of rap and blues

G. Love & Special Sauce match hip-hop with the blues. On their latest album, veteran Keb’ Mo’ adds to the spice

G. Love of G. Love & Special Sauce at the Tortuga Music Festival in Florida in 2017.
G. Love of G. Love & Special Sauce at the Tortuga Music Festival in Florida in 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

Rap and traditional blues can make for an unlikely and, well, unexpected combination. But G. Love (birth name: Garrett Dutton) and his band, Special Sauce, have been riffing on that sort of fusion for well over 25 years. The band, known as G. Love & Special Sauce, is originally Philadelphia based and their characteristic lazy style has often been classified as “sloppy blues". Sloppy in a good sense. G. Love & Special Sauce’s songs are almost invariably feel-good tunes, relaxed and happy. Their music is intentionally loose and can sound a bit ragged at the edges but that is part of the fun.

So, when they released their ninth studio album in mid-January, four years after their previous release, it was interesting to note that they had collaborated with Keb’ Mo’, the veteran bluesman and seasoned guitarist from Nashville, Tennessee. Mo’, 68, whose original name is Kevin Moore, is a leading exponent of the Delta blues but he has always been unafraid to experiment, infusing his style with rock, folk, country and jazz. G. Love and his band are equally adventurous but in a different way. Over the years, their slowed-down style has incorporated other influences: funk, soul, hip hop and even psychedelia, which has also given them a slot in festivals where improvisation-heavy jam bands play.

While G. Love, 47, sings—his lazy drawl is a trademark of the band—and plays the guitar and harmonica, the trio’s other members are Jeffrey Clemens (known as Houseman) on drums, and Jim Prescott (known as Jimi Jazz) on string bass. G. Love’s vocal style is a mix of spoken word and singing and he manages to do it in a way that sounds as if he’s sitting on a porch and singing to himself—easy, unpressured, with a cheerful devil-may-care attitude. The band’s first self-titled album came out in 1994 and its rap-meets-blues style instantly got noticed. But it was with their second album, 1995’s Coast To Coast Motel, that G. Love & Special Sauce really established their unique sound.

In keeping with the carefree type of music they play, G. Love’s lyrics are thoughtful but even when they deal with serious subjects such as violence and drug abuse, they sound relaxed, not overbearing. The lyrics, however, aren’t the highlight of their songs. It is the groove and vibe of their music that makes the band stand out. On The Juice that differentiating factor has been further strengthened. Partly it is because of the bluesman Keb’ Mo’. The band and the veteran guitarist recorded the album in Nashville during informal jam sessions and G. Love has been quoted as saying that the record is a cure for troubled times, an antidote for the rush of bad news that hits us every day.

The influence of Mo’ on the album is vivid. The guitarist brings to the band’s songs a tightness and discipline that makes The Juice a slick, Delta blues-inflected album. And although G. Love’s singing style remains as laid-back as it has always been, The Juice sounds like a mature, well-crafted set of 12 songs. It’s also an album that manages to comment on what is going on in the world without sounding morose or disenchanted. In fact, it sounds cheerful—even in a song such as Go Crazy, which is an exhortation for action to bring about positive social change.

G. Love & Special Sauce’s albums have the vibe of an impromptu party. And The Juice is no different. Besides Keb’ Mo’, the band has also enlisted the help of other heavy hitters. The pedal steel guitar virtuoso, Robert Randolph, appears on the track Birmingham, lending his gospel-influenced speedy style of playing the instrument. And the woefully underrated but hugely talented southern blues rock guitarist, Marcus King, appears on the title track of the album. Along with G. Love’s trademark slacker approach to making music, musicians such as these have made The Juice a sharp and finely-honed album.

For listeners new to G. Love & Special Sauce, this ninth album could well be a good place to start listening to them. But for serious exploration, one must dig deeper into their career. And although a quarter of a century has passed since its release, Coast To Coast Motel is the definitive album by the band. On it, the trio plays spare, spontaneous music, the songs are breezy and burst with dry wit, and the scratchy guitars and harmonica provide the ultimate lazy experience. Funk and rock ‘n’ roll get rolled up with rap and the vibe is super cool. That album marked the band’s establishment of their unique sound—one that it has steadfastly continued to create for all these years, as is evident on The Juice.

At gigs, the band adds a bit of boisterous bonhomie to its saucy mix of genres and there is a double album (a limited edition release) of a gig at Boulder, Colorado, that showcases this spirit. The album, Live At Boulder Theatre, is not easy to get but it is another must-listen album by this groovy trio. G. Love & Special Sauce make the best pick-me-up music on those occasions when you badly need to be picked up!


Five tracks by G. Love & Special Sauce to bookend this week

1. ‘Go Crazy’ from ‘The Juice’

2. ‘Birmingham’ from ‘The Juice’

3. ‘Sweet Sugar Mama’ from ‘Coast To Coast Motel’

4. ‘Nancy’ from ‘Coast To Coast Motel’

5. ‘Bye Bye Baby’ from ‘Coast To Coast Motel’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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