Paul Simon, Velvet Underground and Blind Willie McTell covers on the same album... you don't hear that every day. But then again, maybe you're just not listening to enough G. Love, a guy who has managed to mash Bob Dylan, Delta blues and hip-hop throughout most of his career. He is nothing if not eclectic - and on his new album, Fixin' to Die, he's still beguilingly surprising.
For this outing, the Philadelphia-born artist (real name Garrett Dutton) decided to go back to his roots - far back to the days before he began merging blues-folk with a little R&B and hip-hop to create a laid-back, funk-soul vibe. Even before he hooked up with his band, Special Sauce, or did his first recordings for the Okeh label or landed on pal Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records. For his first album billed only as G. Love, he invited Americana darlings, the Avett Brothers, to produce and perform; they bonded after meeting in Boston.
This time, Love also does several covers - the title tune is by Delta bluesman Bukka White; he also visits McTell's "You've Got to Die." More unexpected are his reimagined versions of Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes."
The iconic latter tune is one of his favorites; it's a go-to song, he said, "If I'm sittin' around the campfire with my friends."
The decision to do covers did not come without hesitation, Love admitted; he said he cherishes the opportunity to get his compositions out to the world on his albums.
"It was a little bit of a mental challenge for me to make that step," he added, "but once I embraced it, it was a really rewarding thing to cut some of those tunes and put my own stamp on them."
After he wrapped his head around the concept, covering Simon's hit wasn't such a leap.
"My manager was trying to get me to cover that in my live show for years," Love said, "and I always shied away from it. But once we decided we were gonna do that, I said, 'Well, let me figure that song out.' And it was cool, actually."
It went over so well onstage, by the time he got to the studio, he was excited about recording it. But they knew they didn't want to mimic the famous Steve Gadd drumbeat, so they wound up stripping it out altogether and going for the claps and kick-drum beats they'd applied on "Fixin' to Die." Then they gave it an Avett bluegrass breakdown. The Avetts, brothers Scott (banjo, drums and vocals) and Seth (guitar, keyboards and vocals) and friend Bob Crawford (bass), form the album's musical nucleus with Love; Sauce drummer Jeff Clemons also contributes.
As for why Love decided to record without Special Sauce, he said, "We wanted to flip the script a little bit and just send me out with my guitar. We felt it could be interesting to go out with some different musicians, and those guys really fit the bill. And their harmonies are super tight, so I knew all the vocals were gonna be amazing.
"I've had a lot of success when I'm doing collaborative efforts," added Love, who's worked with Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter, Ben Harper, Marc Broussard, Blackalicious, Tristan Prettyman and Dr. John, among others. "I think when musicians get together in a creative environment, nothing but exciting music is gonna happen."
He also wanted a stripped-down, elemental sound.
"The most important thing was capturing he vibe," he said. They recorded in Asheville, N.C., the Avetts' home state, where, Love said, music fills the streets and there's lots of "art and creative juices flowin' around."
The studio, housed in an old church, provided even more inspiration.
"It's a big, airy feeling and the light's streaming through the stained glass," he recalled. "When I walked in with my guitar I really got a sense that, man, something special's gonna happen this week. And it really did."
They recorded the disc in only nine days. Ironically, the originals he included span more than 20 years. "Get Goin'" and "Walk On" were written when he was still a student at Germantown Friends School, a Quaker high school in Philadelphia.
If the album has a theme, it might be the joys of love, including his woman ("Milk and Sugar"), his dog ("Katie Miss") and his grandmother ("Ma Mere"). The latter two are long gone; there's also a possibly unintended emphasis on death, with the title song and "You've Got to Die." "Heaven," however, is a love song. And "Milk and Sugar," for his fiancé, is about coffee and love. As G. Love fans know, he's partial to songs about beverages.
"I always like to write about somethin' that people can connect with," Love said with a laugh.
So how does he take his coffee? With milk and sugar, of course.
G. Love and Special Sauce,
The Belle Brigade
9pm Thursday, April 21. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $20/advance, $25/door. Tickets at Bendticket.com, Ranch Records, ticketswest.com.