The bio reads like something out of Frank Capra: young white kid from Center City Philadelphia plays blues guitar on street corners, gets exposed to hip-hop and begins to write rambling narratives that somehow combine the earthy knowledge of the urban streets with the more timeless wisdom proffered by his heroes, blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Lemon Jefferson. G. Love (not to be confused with the rapper G Love E, who had a 1990 LP on Chrysalis) hooks up with a rhythm section from Boston; as a trio they become the first act signed to the revitalized rhythm-and- blues-oriented OKeh imprint.
Somehow, Garrett Dutton, drummer Jeffrey Clemens and string bassist Jimmy Prescott manage to form a fairly sturdy bridge between disparate worlds. The group’s eponymous debut celebrates kid stuff (“Shooting Hoops,” “Cold Beverage”) without pandering, while introducing a trio that can slip and sway as though the musicians had been playing New Orleans after-hours joints for two decades.
That groove underwent serious refinement on Coast to Coast Motel, produced by Memphis legend Jim Dickinson. Concentrating less on a hip-hop-accessible pulse and more on the blues-vamping roots, the trio establishes an easy mastery of understated rhythm and harmonic economy, aping Fats Domino one minute and Muddy Waters the next. Meanwhile, G. Love — a sketchy guitarist the first time out — demonstrates some real confidence as a guitar and harmonica soloist; he’s living proof that constant touring does pay off. Dickinson keeps everything backroads simple (but does enlist the help of Rebirth Brass Band for one track); G. Love moves away from his accustomed blues shout to sing a defiant anti-oppression work song, “Chains #3,” and an inclusionary folk number, “Everybody.” Both are gems.
Actually, Yeah, It’s That Easy is not that easy at all. The N’awlins shamble of “Stepping Stones” and the rap-heavy “I-76” (which gets some serious kicks out of old-fashioned scratching and Love’s hiccupping rhyming style) start things off adequately, but things go south from there. Co-producing with several others, G. spikes the Special Sauce’s practical vibe with prefab preservatives like hectic backing vocals from the All Fellas Band and Hammond organ fills from Dr. John. The potentially worthy grooves found in the rim-shot soul of “Lay Down the Law” and the jazzy hip-hop of the title track stretch into monotonous jamband crap that would make Dave Matthews apologize for his thoughtlessness. A few tunes survive the massacre. The rat-a-scat “Recipe” reveals G. at his b-boy best; the excellent “Making Amends” is loose and bluesy R&B that somehow stays the course; the token acoustic folk ditty “When We Meet Again” whips out the mouth harp and plays like primetime Dylan. These tracks exhibit a positive evolution of the Special Sauce sound. If only the rest of the album could be so lucky.
Co-produced by T-Ray and Chris DiBeneditto, Philadelphonic summons a sunnier disposition and includes a few of Love’s finest compositions but still comes up shy. Jack Johnson pokes in his mellow little head for “Rodeo Clowns,” a decent tune with slightly less personality than the group’s previous singles; the Arrested Development/Young MC feel-good flow of “Dreamin'” and “Friday Night (Hundred Dollar Bill)” goes down smoother. The good stuff gets great with the back-hills funk of “Honor and Harmony” and the breezy “Gimme Some Love,” which takes G.’s brand of acoustic folk out to pick cotton. What ultimately does the album in are the slow, dreamy numbers where Love’s clumsy vocals don’t jive (“Relax,” “Love”), blatant filler like “Around the World (Thank You)” and those trademark Special Sauce blues-rap trifles that simply have no lasting resonance. G. Love’s obviously got game, but Philadelphonic spends a little too much time warming the bench.
To keep the jock analogy going, the Sauce began its next project with two strikes. Shooting to be more than a bubble in the mid-’90s alternative sinkhole facing novelty act stigma, the trio came up with Electric Mile, a first-rate treasure with only a few slugs. In both the infectious “Unified” and the soul-jam skank of the title track, these Philly homeboys take a good reggae beat and work it (although the slower reggae styling of “Praise Up” is not as triumphant). The toasting-like trade-offs in “Parasite” by outside aides Jasper Thomas and Alma work wonders on the songs’ bebop-bass severity, as does John Medeski’s organ work for “Hopeless Case,” a bluesy rocker with menacing tension. “Poison” also feels mighty blue, but it’s still a hoot in that Mississippi-funeral-march kind of way. The rest of Electric Mile succeeds on the smoothest of grooves and the most laid-back of musical convictions. With “Free at Last,” “Sara’s Song” (the obligatory folk number) and “100 Magic Rings,” among others, Love and the boys make a tasty jam sandwich — heavy on the melody, light on the noodle — and their best album in six years.
Released after the group’s tenure at OKeh ended, The Best of G. Love and Special Sauce is a skimpy 11-song summary of five albums. A compilation of the superior tracks from this uneven yet sometimes dead-on act would slay, but this ain’t that disc. Love’s resilient folk numbers go overlooked in favor of lesser tracks (“Blues Music,” “Sweet Sugar Mama”) that fit the rappin’ bluesnik shtick a bit more snugly. Philadelphonic is represented only by the Jack Johnson-dominated “Rodeo Clowns,” and the jazzed-up, lounged-down reprise of “Free at Last” fills in for the superior original.
Hooking up with Johnson’s label (Brushfire) and producer (Nick Caldato Jr., who also worked magic with the Beastie Boys), Love released The Hustle without crediting the Sauce on the cover (although Prescott and Clemens are still the rhythm section. The Hustle is not only the album Love’s fans have been waiting for since Coast to Coast Motel, it’s a prime example of his artistic growth. His music finally emerges from the alley behind the pool hall and into the midday sun. He proffers chugging hick-hop (“Love,” “Waiting”), sounding like LL Cool J breaking the ranks of Buffalo Springfield. His tender folkie alter ego (“Loving Me,” “Sunshine”) and playful devil-on-the-shoulder (“Booty Call,” “Fishing Song” and “Back of the Bus,” which is “Cold Beverage” cool) receive more time. And look, there’s Jack Johnson trading verses on the memorable reggae sing-along “Give It to Me.” Time to give Garrett Dutton his props for completing his first decade as a recording artist with a high mark. Likewise, Prescott and Clemens get a nod for apparently remaining unruffled about their relegation to the inside liner notes. Long live the Sauce!