IS HE BLUE?
You'd anticipate that a guy born with a handle like Garrett Dutton III would wind up with a few affectations. What comes as a surprise, then, is not Dutton's theatricality but his pose of choice. You see, young, white Garrett--aka G. Love, leader of the eccentric, entertaining three-piece G. Love & Special Sauce--has seemingly decided that his mission in life is to act and sound as much as humanly possible like Willie Dixon. At age 75.
"Right now, I'm really back to where I started, man," says Love, who's 22. He draws out his words, mumbling like a recent parolee at the end of a week-long drunk. "I'm doing kind of a country-blues thing. That's where I come from."
Actually, Love is from Philadelphia. That much he'll admit. But ask him more questions about his upbringing--a request to describe his neighborhood, for example--and he gets distinctly edgy. "Just say I'm from the city of Philadelphia, all right?" he mutters. "Why do you want to know this stuff, man?"
A query about his parents provokes an even colder response: "I don't talk about that, man. I do not talk about that."
In fact, Love would prefer not to talk about much of anything. The biographical information provided by the Epic subsidiary OKeh, which released Sauce's memorable self-titled debut in 1994, consists of two modest paragraphs that disclose the most superficial quasi-facts imaginable--and previous profiles don't add many details, either. One is left with the distinct feeling that Love, in the pop-music tradition of David Bowie and Madonna, has largely invented himself. Fortunately, the character he has created is as intriguing as the music he makes.
As Love tells it, not much of interest happened to him prior to his 14th year, when he heard his first Bob Dylan album. He was already teaching himself how to play the guitar by then, and his description of Dylan's impact on his development borders on the mystical. "I always got into my music through my playing," he suggests. "Like, I could play `Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' before I ever heard a Bob Dylan record. I could play `No Money Down' before I ever heard Chuck Berry. I could play `Rocky Raccoon' before I ever heard the Beatles. I could play `Friend of the Devil' before I ever heard the Grateful Dead."
The Beatles and the Dead moved Love, but not as much as the blues. The traditional tracks on early Dylan platters led him to seek out even purer versions of the genre. "I got turned on to this cat named John Hammond, and that really blew my life away," he practically scats. "I started getting all his albums and learning all his songs, and I saw him live and saw where he was coming from. He said he learned from Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson, so I started going back, checking out those people. And I got into those electric people, too--Guitar Slim, Albert Collins."
This self-taught lesson in the blues was conducted in the late Eighties, a period when Muddy Waters wasn't exactly the hottest name in show business. Presumably, Love was looked upon with some curiosity by his fellow Philadelphia high-schoolers. But while he allows that "I always felt like the odd man out," he claims not to have noticed that his peers weren't listening to the same things that were turning his head: "I don't know what they were into, man. Who'd remember that?"
Whether through persuasion or kismet, Love found enough kindred spirits to form a short-lived blues band. "And I also had a group called Greenwood, which was really a trip, man, showing how music just grooves all these people, right?" he goes on. "It was me, kind of acting like a hippie, and there was this really fat Jewish girl named Wendy singing, and then there was this skinhead Quaker named Aaron, who'd wear combat boots and suspenders and the whole nine yards. And we played folk music, man. Folk music."
Love's definition of folk is, to say the least, broad. In fact, he believes that hip hop--a big influence on G. Love & Special Sauce--has more in common with the material popularized by Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton than most people think. "Hip hop is folk music, man," he says. "And it's a lot like the talking blues. See, I started writing songs, and they kept getting wordier and wordier--so wordy that I'd be, like, talking over the groove instead of singing. And I realized that I was already rapping. These were rap songs, man, so I started trying to find cool ways to express myself in the style of rap."
When it became clear that Greenwood wasn't a band that could handle this format, Love started playing for pocket change on the streets and preserving his tunes on ultraprimitive tapes that he tried to hawk to passers-by. He continued the practice after moving to Boston, the city where he eventually hooked up with Special Sauce: stand-up bassist Jimmy Prescott and drummer/vocalist Jeffrey Clemons, nicknamed the Houseman for reasons Love doesn't choose to share. In short order, the players refined an approach they dubbed "ragmop"--a combination of hip hop, reggae and blues dominated by Love's slurred delivery of rhymes that were at once quirky and unique. An executive from the recently revived Forties and Fifties imprint OKeh subsequently heard a G. Love performance. He was already thinking about contracts before the set was over.
The numbers on Special Sauce, the first fruit of this deal, are a varied lot, ranging from the wonderfully superficial "Cold Beverage" and "Shooting Hoops," a simple basketball ode, to the self-referential "Blues Music" and "Garbage Man," a strong track that seems to be about homelessness and curbside romance, in that order. But the compositions aren't the real draw here. Rather, it's the loose, seemingly spontaneous interaction of the musicians. Clemons's drumming represents the height of sloppiness, but when combined with Prescott's similarly unhinged bass, it provides the tunes with unexpected momentum. Love bounces off this rhythmic backdrop with abandon: His guitar-playing is noisy, his harmonica-blowing is heartfelt, and his John Lee Hooker-in-training vocals make up in charm what they lack in authenticity. Love will never pass for a Delta bluesman, but he's pretty good at channeling them.
Of course, none of these skills sounds like a recipe for success, Nineties style; unless Eric Clapton's playing them, the blues are heard on the air about as often as intelligent political discussion. But the Sauce's hip-hop edge, as well as the sheer novelty of the group's performances, has helped the disc make inroads at modern-rock radio. Does it surprise Love that his work's getting spun on outlets dominated by alternative music that's--
"Cheesy? Ridiculous? Overproduced?" Love interjects. "To me, actually, it's really weird. I don't really know about that stuff that they play on those stations, man, but I'm just glad that people are getting the chance to hear some real music, you know? I feel like I'm on a mission to play and take the music back where it was.
"I'm not saying my music is better than anybody else's, or that my art is more worthy than theirs. I'm not saying that I'm anything, all right? All I'm saying is that it's cool that, like, I get to have my say in front of a lot of people every day. It's about the music, man. After all the shows and all the videos and all the hype and all the interviews, it's just me and my guitar."
And that's how it could stay, Love adds. He's been writing songs at an impressive clip, but many of them may land on a thus-far-unscheduled solo album. He's committed to recording a new Special Sauce disc beginning later this month, but he seems fairly unenthusiastic about the prospect of making it. Then again, he seems fairly unenthusiastic--and a bit defensive--about nearly every topic of conversation. These reactions are understandable, he explains, because "there are a lot of people out there trying to make me out to be something that I'm not."
And what's that?
"I don't know, man," says Garrett Dutton III. "Whatever."
G. Love & Special Sauce, with Black Beans. 9 p.m. Thursday, March 2, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.40, 447-0095 or 830-
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