Playing eight days a week
by Chris Berggren
From the December, 2014 issue
"Have Venue, Will Play" should be Laith Al-Saadi's motto. If it's a night of the week, he's probably playing somewhere. I recently caught an Al-Saadi show at the Arena sports bar, where he plays a regular late Monday-night gig. Accompanied by Skeeto Valdez on drums and David Stearns on bass (though Jordan Schug often fills in for Stearns on Mondays), Al-Saadi demonstrated why he's considered a virtuoso on guitar. Big and burly, with the appearance of a latter-day Allen Ginsberg, a Greg Allman-esque voice, and Warren Haynes axe skills, Al-Saadi opened the show with the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" and Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign." He and his band nailed both covers, but the third song, "Last Time You'll See Me Cry," one of his originals from his 2013 album Real, stood out.
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Al-Saadi studied jazz guitar and bass at the U-M. His 2004 debut album, Long Time Coming, is very jazz-rock oriented. By his second album, In the Round, released four years later, he'd switched gears, and most of the songs were primarily blues- and rock-influenced. Both albums were recorded in Ann Arbor at Big Sky Recording. Real, his third album (technically a six-song EP with a pair of alternate-take bonus tracks), stays in the vein of In the Round but is a more rootsy and well-honed composition. Real was recorded at Hollywood's legendary Ocean Way Recording during a one-day, nine-hour session, in which the music went straight to two-track with no overdubs or edits. There, Al-Saadi was backed by a hand-selected group of famous studio musicians, including drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Lee Sklar, organist Larry Goldings, and saxophonist Tom Scott.
Al-Saadi describes music as a conversation. He enjoys the spontaneity and the interactions between himself and his fellow musicians, as well as between band and audience. That was the inspiration behind Real--to keep it real: no auto-tuning, no cut-and-paste editing, just live studio tracks straight to tape.
This philosophy carries over to Al-Saadi's performances, too. At the Arena, he, Valdez, and Stearns were having a blast despite playing without a stage in front of a large-screen TV at a sports bar. The chemistry was terrific. They played a few more covers, including Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" and the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," before turning primarily to Al-Saadi originals: "How It's Gonna Be," the gospel-tinged "Gone," and a long version of "What it Means," complete with bass, drum, and guitar solos and a Led Zeppelin "Heartbreaker" tease neatly inserted in the middle, began the second set. All three songs appear on Real. Four more originals followed: one more from Real and three from In the Round, before another pair of covers (Elmore James/the Allman Brothers' "One Way Out" and the Grateful Dead's "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo") finished the show.
In addition to the trio's regular Monday gig at the Arena, Laith Al-Saadi also plays solo shows most Tuesdays at the Black Pearl. He'll be at the Habitat Lounge in Weber's Inn on Dec. 11, and he's one of the guest stars in the Ragbirds' annual Ebird & Friends holiday show at the Ark on Dec. 13.
[Originally published in December, 2014.]
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