Pat, I'll Buy a "G" for $7,000
By Kevin Klein
MARCH 2, 1998: Lawsuits are pending over the letter "G." A recent lawsuit involves Warren G. and Garth Brooks over their similar trademark. It's as if Oscar the Grouch and Grover were strangling each other over the letter of the day. If one of them wins total control, perhaps the kids on "Sesame Street" won't be able to say the words "grapes," "garage" or "girl."
G. Love of G. Love & Special Sauce hasn't been called into the fray. He bought his name from G. Love E, a rapper, for $7,000.
"I don't think those other artists know who I am," says G. Love from a hotel room in New Orleans' Frrench Quarter. "(G. Love E) was defunct, but he could have come out of the woodwork and sued, I guess. Names are intangible. You can't just hold it, you have to buy it."
Despite not being sued over the letter "G," it was a tough year for G. Love & Special Sauce, a Philadelphia trio with a revolving cast of blues, hip-hop and swing blues extras. On tour, the group nearly broke up due to bickering over finances. They decided to take a break from each other, while G. Love worked on a new album with three different bands (All Fellas Band, Philly Cartel and King's Court) and special guest Dr. John. Soon, though, G. Love & Special Sauce made amends. By the end of 1997, they were back on track, a band with a renewed commitment to swing who bring a bluesy, fun music wherever they go. And, best of all, they are touring as relentlessly as ever.
G. Love, or Garrett Dutton III, is a 25-year-old white boy from Philadelphia who worships at the altar of black music. He gave up his middle-class life to go down on the street corner and play the blues. The son of a lawyer and a cooking instructor, he spends more time looking for old Al Green records or thrift-store shirts with big collars than anything else--except playing guitar. Dutton grew up near Philadelphia's South Street, absorbing the promenade's multicultural flavor. He started playing guitar at eight, and by 15, he was out in the streets first with friends, then alone.
"Playing on the streets--that was my best time ever, man," says Love. "I used to love that. I'd play for four hours straight. In the sun, in the cold and everything. I was pretty much able to be in my own world all the time. I've been listening to that early stuff recently, some tapes I had made then. I don't know how I was making all of those sounds. It was me doing it, I remember, but it was just so wild. I remember feeling a lot of strength from just being out there."
That feeling welling up through Love years ago has been channeled. After a short stint of selling homemade tapes and playing coffeehouses, he hooked up with the band that changed his life. With Special Sauce, drummer Jeff "The Houseman" Clemens and Jim "Jazz" Prescott, Dutton has gone from the streets of Philly playing for nickels thrown into an empty guitar case to the precipice of stardom.
"Luckily for us, we haven't really gained our huge success," says Love. "We haven't gotten to the spot where people want to knock us down. There were those that wanted to say the best was our first release, but I don't think we've done our best yet. I just try to focus in our music. Really, we have been blessed with great and loyal fans. Our fans have kept us going."
He is unafraid to work hard and tour all year-round. He has looks, talent and the band full of hot hands to back him up. He has the songs. Love is not simply a stylist, nor is he an obsessive purist. He nods to the legends but has pushed his well-described love for hip-hop forward. Like Beck, he is searching for the connecting threads that tie modern music with its soulful past. He is the Elvis Presley of hip-hop: part John Lee Hooker and part Christian Slater. Like Elvis, he wears Royal Crown Pomade. And, like Elvis, he believes that the blues is all about what you make it. He's Beck's bluer cousin, a guy with sleepy eyes who plays guitar. When he does that, people move. He sings songs extolling the virtues of a freeway, drives an old Chevy Nova. Love's a clean-cut kid with a rough-city accent, wicked ability to slop guitar riffs into their most infectious and bouncy rhythms like the old guys and a style that transcends whatever is pulling his strings behind the curtain. He is daring fame to come and get him.
But his fame is a crooked path, a half-given promise of stardom that began with his blazing 1994 debut, G. Love & Special Sauce. It got G. Love a spot on the first H.O.R.D.E. tour in '95. It was the year that his career and the careers of his fellow tour mates were at the same baseline level. Somehow, it didn't end up staying that way.
"It was all Dave Matthews, Rusted Root, Joan Osbourne and Blues Traveler on that tour--the bigs," says Love. "Everybody on that tour made gold and platinum records, and this year, there they are on the cover of Rolling Stone and up for Grammys. The thing now is, I can't even get a gig on that tour. They've commercialized it and dropped us flat. I feel excited that our time is coming up. Everybody has overlooked us, and we've been around for a little while. I don't think that people have caught up to us. It's frustrating as a band, to feel that it's not your time yet."
The tension and problems related to the opening and closing doors of fame caused G. Love to part ways for a short time with the Special Sauce band. It seemed that everything opened up for him, and just as quickly it slammed shut. His earnest hard work over three surprisingly consistent albums, including the recent Yeah, It's That Easy, has shown a showman maturing into an artist.
"It wasn't so much turmoil over the past year," says Love. "It's more that I was experimenting with different kinds of bands. I think that it's real important to play with different people so you can keep your music and ideas fresh. This is the first band I ever played with."
The band reunited after Love played with three different bands. Those bands are on the new record, and G. Love & Special Sauce are together and touring again. G. Love returned to his friends, his band and the songs penned about joy in the everyday--girls, basketball and lemonade provide endless inspiration, as do the highways leading to the next show. This time, he's brought a few more musicians along for the party. On their third and latest CD, Yeah, It's That Easy, G. Love & Special Sauce fuse a bluesy acumen with swinging beats and finally come up with a product that shows something more than their great skill in performance.
"Stepping Stones," the first single on the record, hit on Billboard's Modern Rock top 50, and goes down as a love story gone bad. "I wrote the song about a friend of mine who I thought was disrespecting me. Sometimes you try to give to someone, and then they step on you. I guess when people get handed things on a silver platter they cease to appreciate them."
Cameos on Yeah, from keyboard demi-god and guru Dr. John and others, highlight the release. Several bands appear in different incarnations--Special Sauce, the All Fellas Band, the King's Court and the Philly Cartel. The music on the release has the freshness of a debut and the polish of a group that's been together for 10 years, and still has fun doing it.
"Working with Dr. John was one of the pinnacles of my musical existence," says Love. "Music is the kind of thing where it doesn't matter if you're playing with the bum down the street or your friends, whatever--it is all good. But working with him was the ultimate vibe." The admiration seems to be mutual. Dr. John had G. Love and the Back Vocals serenade his wife with a version of The Beatles' "Blackbird."
He plays hip-hop-tinged blues with old guitars. This release has stronger bass lines and turntable scratching added to some of the tracks; G. Love underscores his love for hip-hop as more than a decision about the kind of beats to use. It is a commitment both to tradition and to innovation as well. If there were any serious troubles with the band, it doesn't show in the music anywhere. The light friendship theme throughout the record illustrates both the downs (as on "Stepping Stones" and "Pull the Wool") and the ups ("I-76" and "Take You There"). They are as densely orchestrated as anything Special Sauce has released before. While most of the beats are the booty-shakers, the lyrics are all lamentations in shades of blue. "The Ballad of Luretha Vard," the raw tale of a mother's death and the family's subsequent collapse, is Love's most moving yet.
"She was a policewoman from Philadelphia shot down in the line of duty by two rappers, Steady B and Cool C.," whispers Love. "This happened shortly after New Years' Day, 1996. She was the first policewoman from Philadelphia shot down in Philly, so it was just a really sad story." In the song he moans her loss, wailing that "Mom won't be comin' home." It is a song Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell might have told years ago. He affirms that there is salvation in sorrow.
Yeah, It's that Easy has a new depth, and it makes the celebration feel joyful rather than a diet of candy. He still kicks ass live. When he plays, Love sits, occasionally getting up to see what the other musicians are doing. When he gets going his eyelids are heavier than his instrument. It's as if he's channeling, and if you watch the hands on the guitar, he is. He mumbles the vocals like speaking in tongues. It's not the words so much as the incantation of the musical force. At times he can't stop dancing, half losing track of where he is because of the powerful stoned grooves. It's a long way from his street musician days where he played everything, but he still plays with the power and drive of a wheels-falling-off musical performance.
"Sometimes we're touring with lots of musicians," says Love. "When we come to New Orleans, there are a lot of folks up with us. The studio versions, they are only one interpretation of the song. In reality, that's one performance. On the road, it's a solo, duo, trio; you can fit it for whatever you're doing. My songs start from me solo, sometimes from playing guitar, sometimes from just walking down the street. It's just music. I was watching a special on Marvin Gaye and Motown, and it was him with a trio performing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." You know it was so hot, usually you hear it with strings, and here it was raw and it was hot. The songs were so good that just came through."
He may have traveled millions of miles, but he will in some regard always be a musician of the people. It's fun and not art. Blues in its essence can be played forever, and G. Love & Special Sauce are in it for the long haul. G. Love is banking it on his essential live performance and is putting out the best records yet. He may not ever get the hype of Dave Matthews or Blues Traveler. He may groom his ability to speak for something more than fun into an art form. For the most part, he's trying to get you to dance. For him, it's not too hard. In fact, it's just that easy.
"I still live in Philadelphia," says Love. "We know we're three white boys from up north, but we think the blues is for anyone who feels it."
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