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  • G. Love // SF Chronicle: G. Love keeps groove going strongMarch 4, 2013

    G. Love keeps groove going strong

    Matthew Green
    Sunday, March 3, 2013

    Interviewing G. Love before he goes onstage is kind of like talking to a fired-up boxer before a fight.

    When caught on his cell on the day of his show in Dallas, he’s out for a jog. He speaks in bursts, long sentences punctuated by deep inhalations into his headset, burning calories as the words flow.

    “I feel like it’s always a challenge for me because I care so much about it,” he says of prepping for a performance. “I have a thing when I’m playing a room. I want to conquer that room, take everyone in that room on a musical euphoria.”

    For nearly two decades, Garrett “G. Love” Dutton, 40, has toured relentlessly, carving a unique musical niche and devoted fan base. The self-proclaimed purveyor of the “hip-hop blues,” his songs meld the character and rhythms of Mississippi Delta front-porch music with the beats and flow of hip-hop. The result: a big, unruly stew flavored with essences of Robert Johnson, Young MC and Bob Dylan and chock-full of slide guitar, wailing harmonica, crooning lyrics, flowing rhymes and the occasional beat-box routine. Joined by his longtime band Special Sauce, G. Love brings his charismatic performance style to the Fillmore for two nights this week.

    For East Coasters who came of age in the 1990s, Philadelphia-born G. Love’s music may deliver a distinct pang of nostalgia; his early hits were prominent in dorm-room party soundtracks.

    In 1994, in the era of grunge and gangsta rap, G. Love got a big break with the rapid success of his self-titled debut. In particular, the song “Cold Beverage” – which layered funk, stripped-down electric blues and his signature slurred, lighthearted hip-hop lyrics – quickly became a radio hit, propelling the scrappy harmonica-brandishing 21-year-old from street busker to budding star.

    “In Philly, the neighborhoods are all right on top of each other,” he says. “I grew up in a nice neighborhood, but I was in a totally different world eight blocks away.”

    Despite attending a private Quaker school in an upscale area, G. Love was lured by the youth culture of Philadelphia’s gritty urban core, and as a teenager began listening to a lot of early hip-hop while also falling in love with the fingerpicking, slide guitar rhythms of country blues.

    He recalls hearing bluesman John Hammond for the first time:

    “The song was ‘Traveling Riverside Blues.’ I heard the first note and was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m trying to do.’ It was just real raw and honest.”

    First harmonica

    At 15, G. Love got his first harmonica – a Hohner in the key of C – and a neck rack so he could play it while strumming guitar. He and a friend started performing in the streets of downtown Philly, doing a range of simple classic rock covers and standard blues tunes.

    “It was kind of a joke at first, but we started making loot,” he says.

    His epiphany came during a particularly successful evening: “We were sitting out on Second and Lombard having our best night ever – we made 60 bucks, a joint, some cigarettes and two beers. We were in the lap of luxury, feeling high on life.”

    Without much thought, G. Love began picking a simple blues riff and rapping the lyrics of “Paid in Full” – a classic Eric B. and Rakim hip-hop track – over the melody.

    “This is something that I’m doing and no one else in the world is doing except for me,” he remembers thinking. He called it “sing-rapping.”

    G. Love set out on an ambitious pace, writing a slew of songs and recruiting Jimmy “Jazz” Prescott on acoustic bass and Jeffrey Clemens, a.k.a. “House Man,” on drums – Special Sauce. In 1994, the band finished recording its first album and signed with a major label just after G. Love’s 21st birthday.

    Since then, the group has remained generally faithful to its original musical character, retaining the signature blues hip-hop groove while maturing with new layers of depth and complexity. In 2004, G. Love signed with Brushfire Records, the label owned by acoustic-pop balladeer Jack Johnson, a move, he claims, that offered him greater flexibility to explore different styles.

    Musical roaming

    “Fixin’ to Die,” his latest album, released in 2011, is a product of that musical roaming. With help from the Avett Brothers, the folk-rock group whose banjo-strumming ballads have caught on with mainstream audiences, the album is a collection of traditional folk-blues and covers, including a solid rendition of Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” and a stripped-down, somewhat lackluster acoustic version of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.”

    “I had been wanting to make a blues or folk record forever. I just had never really had support from a record label to do something like that,” he says. “This was a second chance to make another first record.” {sbox}

    G. Love and Special Sauce: 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F. $25.


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