By Liz Tracy
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In the beginning, Philadelphia native Garrett "G. Love" Dutton — hitting the national music scene like a fourth Beastie Boy crossed with splashes of Beck and Bob Dylan — created the song "Cold Beverage" with his two-man backing band, Special Sauce. The year was 1994, the shambling song came from the trio's self-titled debut, and it slowly became a radio and MTV hit, fusing hip-hop to vintage blues, jazz, and funk. The lively, lighthearted, summertime singalong jam was highly popular on the East Coast, and the tune helped push that album's sales past the gold mark.
G. Love immediately realized the record was special. So the former busker turned budding superstar with the electric guitar, harmonica strapped around his neck, old-school high-tops, and pork-pie hat decided to hit the road something fierce to keep the momentum rolling.
In the years that followed, he and the band would never again enjoy a hit on the level of "Cold Beverage." But something else happened along the way as they played hundreds of shows a year — shrewdly aligning themselves with the post-Grateful Dead jam-band scene that blossomed in the '90s. They retained favor among the college kids... OK, the frat-and-sorority scene that embraced "Cold Beverage" (natch). G. Love and Special Sauce became a viable and quite successful live act, to this day consistently packing venues large and small even when their albums have moved small numbers or been ignored by the mainstream media.
"I think the most important thing a musician can do is to connect with an audience," the 35-year-old G. Love, who's on doctor-ordered vocal rest, writes in an email from his current headlining tour. "If you have an audience, you can tour. If you can tour, you can make records. It's that simple. Remember that saying musicians would repeat at their gigs: 'If it wasn't for you, there would be no us'? Well, it's true. Our fans and supporters are the best ever. Whenever I've been down, they have lifted me up. We worked hard and blanketed this country for the last 15 years, bringing our music to every little town and big city in this country in all types of weather, and it's paid off."
While acknowledging G. Love's hard-earned standing in the live music arena, it would be unfair to give short shrift to the ten albums the band has made or the steady evolution of its sonic repertoire from the beginning to now. Except for the occasional stripped-down, throwback party groove, those early, gloriously rickety front-porch and street-corner jams have grown denser and more sophisticated with appropriations of classic Philly soul stylings, reggae, folk, even acid-tinged psych-rock.
In fact, if you're coming back to the band after a long hiatus via its recent tenth album, Superhero Brother, you might be amazed at the growth in the band's sound and vibe. On tracks like the opener, "Communication," and "City Livin'," which follows, G. Love's vocal delivery takes on the tone and phrasing of Jerry Garcia and Van Morrison, respectively. The first song's a simmering stew of Southern-rock piano boogie and loose-limbed, Dead-style guitar noodling, while the second is blue-eyed soul buoyed by staccato guitars, shuffling rhythms, and elegant horn section punch. Further in, "Wiggle Worm" is molasses-thick with raw harmonica-blues and quasi-bebop jazz as G. Love lays down his trademark rap drawl. The acoustic guitar and cascading piano on "Crumble" drop the singer-rapper's tender rhymes atop buttery, shimmery '70s moods, like a slow, late-night drive on rain-slickened city streets. And then there's "Who's Got the Weed," the woozy, slow-funk ganja-jam that opens with the sounds of a flint strike and a gurgling bong hit and is later punctuated by coughs and silly stoner-speak; it's clearly destined to be a live favorite right up there with "Cold Beverage."
Superhero is the third G. Love and Special Sauce disc to be released on Brushfire Records, the label owned by surfer and laid-back acoustic-pop singer/songwriter Jack Johnson. The pair first met back in 1997, when G. Love was introduced to Johnson by a mutual friend, Photographer Scott Soens, who has also directed a handful of Johnson music videos in addition to some skate and surf films.
"It's been an amazing ride," G. Love says of the association, which previously delivered his 2004 album The Hustle and 2006's Lemonade. At their first encounters, "he played me some songs; I played him some as well. I asked him if I could record [Johnson's] 'Rodeo Clowns' for my fourth record [1999's Philadelphonic]. The rest is history. Ever since I signed with Brushfire, it seems like my whole career has been revamped."
Certainly, G. Love has benefited to some degree from being championed by Johnson, who's turned into an unlikely superstar in recent years. And he says he's much happier being involved with the independent-minded, eco-friendly Brushfire model than the Epic major-label machine he was on previously, though he did manage to survive on a major for six albums.
"The music business has definitely lost some of the mystique of the old days," he says. "It seems open to anyone these days. When I was a street musician, the big record companies seemed a million miles away. It seemed like it was: Make the big-time or nothing at all. These days, the music business seems a lot closer because of the internet. It's also a Catch-22, because it seems harder than ever to make it."
In the beginning, G. Love's prime motivation was to emulate two of his biggest idols, Bob Dylan and John Hammond: "They both made their first records at 20 years old. When I was 17 years old, I made a goal (or a pipe dream) to make a record by the time I was 20. I completed my first record at 21."
And now, ten albums in, his goals have become broader and in some ways more meaningful. "I thought success would be making one record. That was what I set out to do. But as you get further along, you can see the possibilities are endless. I think success is making people feel the music. This can happen every night, whether you're in a stadium or the corner bar."