The sound of the bottleneck slide guitar is steeped in, yet often saddled by, Delta blues. While its jarring howl is instinctively rural, Sonny Landreth, who brings his trio to the Town Ballroom on Thursday, has proven that its fluid dialogue and open tuning make it ripe for open-minded interpretation.
Landreth is both a professor emeritus and a wide-eyed student of the slide, and he has spent most of his career with only one foot in the blues. In addition to making nine albums of his own, he toured in the late '70s with zydeco king Clifton Chenier, led the rustic blues-rock trio the Goners -- with bassist David Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins, the same trio that he tours with now -- behind John Hiatt in the late '80s and again earlier this decade, and has performed and recorded with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffett in the last two years. While he holds nightly clinics on the explosive dominance of the slide guitar, his decades of experimenting with tones and techniques have proven its capabilities to be limitless.
"I figured out a way to use the slide fingers on my left hand to open up more, harmonically and rhythmically," he said from his home near his birthplace of Lafayette, La. "And I use the palm of my right hand to get sounds on both sides of the slide and strings, and some other techniques here and there. . . . The main effect of having different parts at once is it creates a more complex sound overall onstage, even though it's only three of us up there. It's a beautiful thing when it takes off, but if it doesn't work, you fall flat on your face."
This sound is in full flight on Landreth's first live album, "Grant Street." Recorded in the Lafayette club of the title and released this year, it captures his greatest gift -- his fascinating ability to mimic the rhythmic delivery of instruments as varied as the fiddle, trumpet, and accordion, into his own swarming, swampy style on the slide. His stew is a glorious serving from the vibrant melting pot of music that has defined the Bayou, and it's sure to get more colorful with the influx in his hometown of some 50,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.
"There's been such a cool exchange of culture," he said. "There are jam sessions all around town, and I go to the neighborhood I grew up in, and a lot of the street musicians are playing in houses and all around. New Orleans may never be what it was, but it's still the soul of America, as Wynton Marsalis so eloquently put it. I look for the silver lining, and I think that exchange in culture is really important."
As unique as that present situation is, Landreth's music has long been defined by the exchange of culture that comes from his always-open ears.
"You have to keep your antennas up at all times, and be bold enough to take jumps into new sounds," he said. "And know that there are so many great players, and there's something to learn from everybody."
WHO: Sonny Landreth
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.
TICKETS: $19.50 advance, $22 at the door (Tickets.com)INFO: 852-3900