G. Love has some very specific career goals.
“I wanna establish myself as one of the great guitar players of our generation, and one of the great harp players of our generation, and one of the new bluesmen of our generation,” he says, before reflecting a moment. “And I am.”
He’s clearly not short on swagger. G. Love was a photogenic kid from Philly who started busking in Harvard Square in 1992, and within two years was signed to a major label. Now he’s 42, and has evolved from brash phenom to a career artist with longevity, and perhaps a legacy. He has musical posterity on his mind.
“I’m not a kid anymore, it’s real,” he says, on the phone from the car, somewhere between New York and Boston. “In 20 or 30 years I’m going to be a legendary bluesman.”
He’s been touring with his original trio, Special Sauce, for the first time in years. Drummer Jeff Clemens, whose muscular, hip-hop-inspired beats help define the group’s sound, has been along for the whole ride. But the funky pop of Jim Prescott’s upright bass had been absent for several years before the reunion, spurred by a new album (“Sugar”) and a 20th anniversary tour celebrating its self-titled debut.
“Sugar” is a straight-up triumph, brushing up on the rootsier elements of the group’s sound. Since its breakout hit, “Cold Beverage,” the group has remained quite consistent, embroidering on its sound across a series of albums, but always retaining an original hybrid of blues, hip-hop, and rock.
Born Garrett Dutton, the man who would be G. Love spent a year at Skidmore College before heading up to Boston to move in with a friend of a friend, looking to make it in the music scene here. He met Clemens at the late Tam O’Shanter club in Brookline, where the drummer ran a weekly jazz jam. Clemens remembers driving his new friend back to Jamaica Plain that night after he missed the last train.
“Basically G. Love was like a puzzle that wasn’t quite put together yet. He was a puzzle that was still in the box — you open the box and there’s 500 pieces there,” says Clemens, who grew up in Randolph and had been playing around on the local blues and rock scene for about 10 years at that point.
The future bandleader cut his teeth playing dobro, guitar, and harmonica, trying out original songs on unsuspecting passersby in the Square, but not making much by way of tips. One night, after one of his original blues tunes, he started spontaneously rapping a song by Eric B. and Rakim, “Paid in Full.” It was a breakthrough, which led him to start rapping over the blues grooves he was endeavoring to master. He worked his way up to a Wednesday night job playing the smaller space at legendary club the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square, and added a residency at the space at the Middle East, then known as the Bakery.
The trio inherited a weekly residency with quite a lineage — Mark Sandman hooked the group up with a Monday night gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge when Morphine started touring widely and were ready to give it up, G. Love and Clemens say. Nine months after the group’s first gig at the Tam, G. Love recalls, it was signed to Epic Records. Full-on mainstream success remained a touch-and-go affair, but it’s been a good career and a good life. “I always think this is really cool — not to brag, but it was something just to go from being a street musicians to, you know, Back Bay condo owner,” he says with a chuckle.
Twenty years on, G. Love says the impact of his group’s sound, as heard on that debut album, hasn’t been adequately acknowledged.
“It was a more influential record than a lot of music writers want to give credit for,” he says. “When they make the lists of the 100 greatest records of the ’90s, if that record’s not in there I don’t think the writer is up on their [expletive], because that sound influenced a lot of people who are super huge and influential today. They got a lot of ideas from that record. I spoke to Jack White and Kid Rock, and they were both at our first show in Pontiac, Mich., in ’93.”
Though the group came up through the Boston scene, maybe it didn’t hang around long enough — the members had split by about ’95, though G. Love has both a teenage son and a condo in Boston — to be enshrined as one of the city’s great success stories of that decade. And if it hasn’t gotten its proper due for anticipating the rock-rap trend of the ’90s, maybe it’s the issue of a white kid too obviously appropriating black signifiers. (G. Love originally sang with a highly affected, slurred voice that sounded somewhere between a grizzled bluesman and a drunk 20-year- old.) Or maybe he’s just too good-looking.
Whatever the case, when G. Love and Special Sauce plays the House of Blues on Saturday, it’s bound to be part reunion and part party — with plenty of cold beverages to go around.