Detroit Bluesman Laith Al-Saadi Gives a Commendable Performance at Indy’s Vogue Theater, But Misses a Few Crucial Notes.
If there’s one feature of the blues, music born in the suffering of slavery, that scholars can agree on, it’s this: it ain’t clean. After all, this distinctly American fusion of African and European musical traditions had its genesis in a need to express enormous suffering. Not exactly something you can scrub away. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Last Friday, the 2nd specifically, Laith Al-Saadi played the Vogue Theater. He did so with skill and a sense of showmanship. However, many of his songs felt too, well, clean. And becasue they were too clean, the spirit of the blues was not wholly in attendance that night.
Now, before we get into all that, let’s have a little history. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bend your proverbial ears with a lecture on the history of the blues. Instead, I’m going to bend your proverbial ears with a brief lecture on Al-Saadi’s history. Brief, because I’ve already covered this elsewhere.
A Brief History
Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi didn’t have any proper contact with rock until around the age of ten. Although he had been musically active since around age 4, his father had little use for popular music. That all changed when Al-Saadi’s mother divorced his father. As a woman with eclectic tastes, she exposed Al-Saadi to worlds of music he had never known. Eventually fixing on blues and jazz, Al-Saadi began learning the guitar and engaging with the local musical culture. For example, in high school he joined a band called Blue Vinyl, which gave him his first taste of the rock lifestyle. Interestingly, Blue Vinyl was actually quite successful, touring Holland and even once appearing with Taj Mahal. Even so, the band eventually broke up. Undaunted, Al-Saadi studied jazz and blues bass in college, becoming a session musician.
He had his first taste of solo success when he released his debut album, Real, in 2013. However, it was in 2016 when Al-Saadi really hit it big. Landing a spot on The Voice with a cover of “The Letter”, Al-Saadi managed to reach the finals before his dismissal. Since then, he has recorded new material while playing venues across the country.
Going into the Vogue, I couldn’t help but notice two things: one, that the venue wasn’t as full as I was used to seeing it. And two, that most of the crowd was of the older persuasion. Now, late winter isn’t exactly prime concert season, but even then, the Vogue generally packs them in. Perhaps I should have taken that as a sign. Perhaps not.
The first act on stage that night was Dacota Muckey, a new age singer. In terms of technique, he was actually quite interesting. After all, it’s not everyday that someone mixes Classical technique with looped beatboxing. Even his guitar style was unusual, what with his playing his instrument like it was a lute. Gimmicky? Maybe. But I can say that Dacota Muckey was an unexpected treat.
If there’s one thing I can say in Al-Saadi’s favor, it’s this: he knows his stuff. I can’t fault him on any technical point, his playing is top quality. Where he falls short is, more often than not, is feeling.
Case in point, many of the blues renditions he gave came across as safe, clean, to the point of being spineless. None of the gutbucket grit that he showed audiences on The Voice was anywhere to be found. Instead, Al-Saadi chugged along, delivering songs that were technically adept, but didn’t connect on an emotional level. Good blues transports its listener to dusty old jukes and scrappy inner city clubs. This was more like attending a cocktail part at a regatta.
All was not lost, however. Near the show’s end, Al-Saadi played three songs that he had written while down in New Orleans. The city’s atmosphere must have rubbed off on him, because I liked these songs much more than anything else of his I had heard that night. In particular, the song “How It’s Gonna Be”, an old-time growler in the style of Chicago blues favorites like Koko Taylor and Muddy Waters, was a pleasure to hear. The song’s gritty, rough and ready character, almost like bopping around the Maxwell Street Market on a July afternoon, gave me the dirt I’d been listening for. How he got that Chicago feel in the Big Easy, I’ll never know.
Al-Saadi can do much better than just technique, he’s already proven as much. Hopefully, he returns to form.
Keep listening, everybody.