G. Love: A Case of the Blues
Photo by Noah Abrams
The last few years have been rough on Garrett Dutton.
The 38-year-old musician has rocked through the highs of life and inched through the lows. And after suffering an acute vocal hemorrhage, multiple major record labels dropping him and dealing with the complicated emotions of watching friends’ records succeed while his records don’t, Dutton seems to have found the sweet spot.
“Over the years, my focus has faltered,” says Dutton looking truck-stop dapper in a pearl-snap plaid shirt and jeans. “But I’m just a man trying to live my life, and now, I feel like my focus is completely right. And that’s helping to even things out.” Dutton is talking about his latest record, the back-to-blues Fixin’ to Die on Brushfire Records, and how it’s the album that he was born to make.
But this time, the record-I-was-born-to-make talk is not a rock star cliché of an artist pulling out of a lackluster album cycle with hyperbolic talk and a stoic, forward-looking gaze. While the last G. Love & Special Sauce record, 2008’s Superhero Brother, was a commercial flop and the worst-selling unit of the group’s 18-year career, Fixin’ to Die, produced by Scott and Seth Avett (two principals of the The Avett Brothers), is a throwback to Dutton’s deep past.
It also represents his future legacy.
“I’ve always talked about how I can play the blues, but this is about us showcasing what we can do,” says Dutton, the Boston boy who left his heart in his native Philadelphia. “I’ve been ready to make this record for 25 years.”
The meandering lines of Widespread Panic waft into to the dressing room the night before New Year’s Eve as the band soundchecks at the Pepsi Center, a Denver arena better known for hosting hockey games than rock shows. Dutton is opening two big, celebratory nights for the Georgia rock act and his band’s rehearsal space is the musty visiting hockey team’s locker room. At the moment, he’s wrapping up a band meeting and rehearsal.
“Just chill for a little bit—whenever you’re ready,” he tells original drummer Jeff Clemmons, organ man Mark Boyce and new bassist Timo Shanko. “I wanna play [Bukka White’s]‘Fixin’ to Die.’ That’s the only one I really have to play tonight.”
Spirits are high. The crew and band made it to Denver despite airport delays on the east coast and in the Rockies due to the blizzard that hit several days before, crippling much of the country’s air travel. Brushfire Records, co-owned by Dutton’s buddy Jack Johnson, is pleased with Fixin’ to Die. And the new album’s buzz is already filtering through all of the right industry channels.
Conversations with radio stations are going well, too. While station and program directors don’t want G. Love’s curious new cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”—because Simon himself has a new song on the radio for the first time in years—they are interested in the title track and the mellow, melodic “Just Fine.” G. Love is hardly a blogger darling—in fact, he’s been criticized by the cool kids for his earnest take on hip-hop—but even the hipsters are psyched about the Avett Brothers’ participation on his new blues record.
“It’s been easy to hate on me because I’m a white dude who plays the blues and raps,” he says with a familiarity that’s almost too self-aware. “I get that. It’s easy to hate on us. But on the Jack [Johnson] tour last summer, it was just me and an acoustic guitar. You can’t hate on that.”
For two months, Dutton opened Johnson’s shows by himself—a rebuilding exercise to help him prepare for the Fixin’ to Die sessions. “It was a challenge translating what I do with the band into an acoustic environment—and for such large audiences,” Dutton says of the Johnson tour. “Part of that was opening every night’s set with ‘Milk and Sugar,’ a lighthearted song that has some real Delta blues picking. I’m going to start the show with it tonight, because I find that it really engages the crowd. Hell, it’s about coffee!”
“Milk and Sugar” is a likable jam on a record that is full of them. The stark, footstomps-and-handclaps title track paints a bleak picture, but the Booker White-penned song benefits from the Avetts’ Judgment Day-styled production and gospel-inspired backing vocals. And the rollicking, early-Dylan choruses of “Ma Mere” are a sly-and-subtle tribute to Dutton’s late grandmother.
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