From the Swamp Dogg Facebook page; no photo attribution
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Love, Loss, and Auto-tune: Swamp Dogg at the Turf Club

The eccentric, legendary bluesman/soul singer brings his unique style to St. Paul

Auto-tune this, auto-tune that

Swamp Dogg is one of that last living blues legends. But what does everyone talk about when he comes up? Auto-tune.
Auto-tune this, auto-tune that. I’m sick and tired of hearing about auto-tune. 

On his latest album, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, Swamp Dogg worked with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and it shows. As fellow Music in Minnesota writer Aaron Williams pointed out, the combination of synths, horns, and auto-tune is something that he’s only really heard on Bon Iver records. Swamp Dogg says that using auto-tune was his idea, and even that he wanted to sound like Rhianna. That’s a long way from his days in the 70s channeling Al Green.

There are two equally annoying camps about the “blues legend using auto-tune” novelty: the purists who can’t handle any sort of innovation and hate it, and the hipsters who automatically like it just because it’s different and they’re told to like it. A plague on both your houses.

What it’s supposed to be about: the music

The set was filled with songs from his new album. The lineup of bass, drums, guitar, three horns, an energetic synth player, and Swamp Dogg’s keyboard made for an impressive wall of sound.

As far as the auto-tune goes, it just felt like a novelty. It doesn’t add anything, but it doesn’t really get in the way either. Honestly, the synths were more intrusive.

A highlight – kind of – was his cover of John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone,” the heartbreaking story of a Vietnam vet who dies of a heroin overdose. The first six minutes were transcendent: no auto-tune, the synth player mostly stuck to playing organ, and his voice was a bit tattered but strong.

However, the song went on for another ten or so minutes, including one of Swamp Dogg’s many expletive-laden, semi-incoherent rants. It was a bit much.

No-one else can do it for you

Sure, I’d prefer that Swamp Dogg play more classics from his impressive back catalog, in addition to putting more of an emphasis on the sheer power of his voice and music. But that’s not Swamp Dogg. He’s always been a little eccentric, and that’s one of the things that makes him such a legend. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Other notes 

  • For 76, Swamp Dogg was impressively active. He walked through the entire crowd twice, and his energy level never subsided. I was lucky enough to shake his hand.  

  • During the show, Music in Minnesota writer Aaron Williams and I brainstormed analogies for auto-tune. Aaron had the brilliant suggestion that maybe it’s our generations talk-box, in which case T-Pain would be our Peter Frampton. And Kanye would be our Bon Jovi? I dunno. 

  • To me, opener MMYYKK pulled off experimentation better than Swamp Dogg. His presence on multiple keyboards was impressive, and his backing band of trumpet and drums made things interesting sonically. Their smooth, melodic, and sometimes funky songs combined jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul. At one point, they even improvised a song onstage, and it sounded as fully formed as the rest of their songs.

What do you think?

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Written by Erik Ritland

Erik is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to writing and editing for a number of local outlets, he founded Rambling On, a Minnesota-focused blog and podcast about music, sports, and culture, in 2012. He began working for Music in Minnesota in 2018 and is a writer, editor, and social media content strategist.

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