"Yeah," confirms Emo, tour manager for G. Love and Special Sauce, "last night they played so long, somebody threw a frog up onstage." A live frog? "No" he says, voice turning thoughtful over the phone. "They must have brought it from a high school or something. It was in a Ziploc bag."
Oh. A dissected frog.
"No, it was all in one piece."
When Garrett Dutton III gets on the line, yawning from the effects of a late show and the afternoon drive from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., he can neither confirm nor deny that there had been an amphibious presence the night before.
"I never actually got to see the frog," mumbles the 21-year-old Philly native. "I heard rumors there was a frog thrown up onstage."
Dutton--the G. Love of G. Love and Special Sauce--has been on the road nonstop for about a year now, giving people ample opportunity to toss all kinds of strange things his way. Fortunately, small creatures in plastic bags have been flying at him far less often than glowing reviews. And the group's self-titled debut CD has been moving steadily off record-store shelves.
So far, though, both radio and MTV have been unresponsive.
The problem seems to be originality. G. Love and Special Sauce are located, musically speaking, in an admirable but hard-to-categorize ghetto. Even the music press is confused; G.L. and S.S. are described as either taking hip-hop in another direction ( la Digable Planets and Arrested Development) or breathing new life into the blues.
You can almost hear the complaint echoing down record-company hallways: "This is great, but what the hell are we going to do with it?"
Hip-hop or blues? Well, the band calls its product "ragmop," and a few seconds into the CD's first song, "Things That I Used to Do," drummer Jeffrey "The Houseman" Clemens and bassist Jimmy Jass "The Marshmallow Man" Prescott (the ingredients of Special Sauce) make you forget you ever asked the question. They lock you into a slow, sway-in-your-seat kind of groove that reflects influences running from John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to Stevie Wonder and James Brown. And Dutton, sounding a lot like Paul Westerberg might have if he'd been born ten years later and about 2,000 miles farther east, tears into the track with a vengeance.
If you must have a name for it, here goes: G. Love's music is hip-hop blues. You could imagine Clemens and Prescott making a pretty fair living in New Orleans, and Dutton should put an end to the notion that white guys can't play the blues. (Just listen to his steamy guitar work on "Garbage Man.")
While Dutton's strongest influence is clearly the blues, his rhythmic, improvisational, scat-singing delivery leads one to believe he is also dipping into the same well as KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest. But Dutton insists that he didn't develop his sound out of some premeditated desire to discover something new.
"You just have influences," he says, "and whatever comes in your life, in your eyes and your ears, comes out of you. And me, like any kid, I've been listening to hip-hop for about ten years. It's a part of the culture, the pop-media culture which I've definitely been exposed to, and my sound comes out of what my influences have been. What sounds right to me is an old blues record. What doesn't sound right to me is a Phil Collins record.
"When I'm in the studio, I'm not after a real polished sound; I'm after the sound of the instruments the way they sound to me in the room together."
It's that stripped-down, live sound that differentiates G. Love and Special Sauce from the aforementioned Digable Planets and others who have been taking hip-hop down a different road. No sampling. No blatant overproduction. Not a song that you couldn't imagine seeing three sweaty guys rip into live in a small club.
While Dutton may be drinking the water of the present, he takes his nourishment from roots that he spells out in "Blues Music":
Going way back . . . From where the music really started
I'm a child of the Eighties
From where I departed since then I started
A collection of the people
Who started it all
I kept them
In my sock like money
Blues music . . . But how does a decidedly Caucasian son of a lawyer get hooked on the blues? Dutton began his trip early, picking up the guitar when he was only 8 and soaking up Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Jimmy Reed. Credit his City of Brotherly Love upbringing.
"I grew up in the city down around where a lot of street musicians played, on South Street," he says. "It's a pretty famous street. It's like the promenade street. It's where all the punks were and where all the jazz was in the Forties, and where all the artists were for a while.
"Now it's where all the cheeseball tourists come," Dutton grouses. "There's always a cool street, and then TCBY Yogurt and the Gap and Tower Records move in. Now there's even a McDonald's down on South Street."
Dutton himself was playing guitar and singing in the street by the time he was 12 or 13. Later, he split his time between high school basketball and honing his chops to old blues records. After a single semester at Skidmore College, he moved to Boston to pursue music full-time. It was there that Clemens found Dutton; the pair hooked up with Prescott and things began falling together.
Dutton's father suggested they send a demo tape to the Philadelphia Music Conference. Stiff Johnson, a member of the conference's screening committee and a producer, invited the band to do some recording. Over the summer of '93, the band traveled back and forth from Boston to Philadelphia to work in Johnson's Studio 4.
The trio ended up recording more than half of the songs for the album there, including "Town to Town," "Shooting Hoops," "I Love You" and the band's next single, "Baby's Got Sauce." A performance that year at the New Music Seminar in New York set off a bidding war that led to the band's signing with Okeh Records, a revival of a label that was once home to Duke Ellington, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Louis Armstrong.
Dutton has developed his own style, but along the way he may turn a few people on to the music that makes up his roots.
"It's never been a mission," he emphasizes. "It's just that I dig the blues so much, and I always make people listen to it, because I want to listen to it. I go, 'Yo, take that [other] shit off!' And then they'll be like, ~'Hey, man, this shit is fucking cool!'
"And I'll go, 'Yeah, that's the blues, man.'"
G. Love and Special Sauce are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, February 15, at Gibson's in Tempe, with One. Showtime is 9 p.m.