Thursday, September 6, 2012

Little Feat "Rooster Rag" (4.5*)

There isn’t, as has frequently been remarked, a superannuation fund for working musicians and given the nature of the beast it’s unlikely many of those who haven’t enjoyed the heights of commercial success and subsequently managed to hang on to the proceeds are likely to have too much stashed away to fund their retirement.

Which, of course, explains why so many of the musos I’ve been listening to for the past forty-five years are out on the road. Given the state of the record industry at the moment you could be inclined to attach a Why bother? sticky note to any plans to record new material, but when you’re on the road the merchandise table provides a vitally important income stream.

That’s how I’m inclined to read the proliferation of live albums, compilations and DVD material in Little Feat’s twenty-first century discography anyway.

A glance at the discography page here reveals four studio albums after 1998’s Under the Radar lined up beside nine live efforts, six compilations and three DVD titles (bearing in mind the coincidence of the two versions of Rockpalast). That’s a fair chunk of product to lay out alongside the T-shirts, stubby coolers, key rings and other paraphernalia on the merch table but you’ll also need a collection of new material from time to time. There are, after all, only so many ways you can repackage your back catalogue.

Initial reports about Rooster Rag, which is, just so we can get the statistics out of the way early, the band’s sixteenth studio outing, suggested we were in for an album of blues covers, and while the Rag kicks off with a tasty rendition of Mississippi John Hurt’s Candy Man Blues, and concludes with a romp through Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy featuring the (underused, at least as far as I’m concerned) vocals of Sam Clayton, I’m glad they opted to fill the middle with new material.

Hair-splitters will, of course, question tagging the four Fred Tackett compositions here as new material, with A Church Falling Down dating back to his 2003 solo album (In a Town Like This) and One Breath at a Time, Tattooed Girl and Jamaica Will Break Your Heart making an appearance on Silver Strings around two years ago.

The album is fleshed out with a single contribution from Paul Barrere (Just a Fever, co-written with the late Stephen Bruton) and no less than five contributions co-written by keyboard ace Bill Payne. Of those five, four are co-authored by Robert Hunter, long time lyricist for the Grateful Dead, with the final co-write giving the band’s most recent recruit, drummer Gabe Ford a writing credit.

Ford had been Richie Hayward’s drum technician until lung cancer took founding member Hayward out of the mix, and the gig became permanent when Richie succumbed to pneumonia in August 2010.

As the band shuffles into Candy Man (one they’ve been doing live for a while, usually as a segue out of Down On The Farm) with the nudge nudge, wink wink sensibility that runs right through the band’s best material, it’s obvious Ford’s got Richie’s drum groove right down pat. That’s followed by the album’s title track, the first of the Payne/Hunter compositions, an exercise in jaunty Americana with good time fiddle from Larry Campbell.

Fred Tackett’s moody Church Falling Down drops things back a couple of notches, with mandolin and understated vocals on an evocative gospel ballad about changing times that contrasts nicely with the earthier themes in the Payne/Hunter Salome, set in a Louisiana houseboat that serves as a whorehouse and dishes up soul food on the side.

One Breath at a Time reworks the Fred Tackett solo version by splitting the vocal three ways, with Fred, Paul Barrere, and Sam Clayton going turn about through a ballad that has more than a dash of Mose Allison in the recipe.

The good time boogie comes to the fore in the Barrere/Bruton Just a Fever that grooves along merrily and is succeeded by a classic road song in Rag Top Down with Hunter’s highway imagery delivered by a warm Bill Payne vocal. There’s more of the same on Way Down Under (Payne/Hunter) while Paul Barrere rather than writer Fred Tackett gets the vocal slot on the wistful Jamaica Will Break Your Heart. Fred’s back in the limelight for Tattooed Girl, which shares much of the same mood as its predecessor and the blues are back for The Blues Keep Coming and Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy, where a characteristically husky Sam Clayton vocal and some blues harp from ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson.

Considered as a whole Rooster Rag is another excursion through familiar territory with the regular Feat fusion of rock, blues, country, R&B and funky jazz with enough new elements (Hunter’s contribution being the prime example) to differentiate it slightly from what has gone before while retaining continuity. For mine, there’s no one else out there that sounds quite like the Feat and the production job from Bill Payne and Paul Barrere presents everything in a crisp, clear setting.

In the end, however, while it’s a rather tasty collection of fresh material there isn’t much that’s going to force many of what I’ve termed the night by night usual suspects out of the set lists.

Which, from where I’m sitting, is fine. Dedicated fans attending concerts probably want to hear the obscurities or new material, which is understandable. Those with a nodding acquaintance with the band probably expect the usual suspects (particularly the one long term fans have been known to term That Damn Chicken Song) and anyone who isn’t too familiar with the extensive back catalogue probably needs to hear the tried and tested material that tends to make the strongest impression.

In the absence of a superannuation fund for working musos, efforts like Rooster Rag are a vital component in keeping it going and maintaining a degree of freshness. On that basis, I can heartily recommend it with the suggestion that, if you’re new to the Feat (and face it, they aren’t exactly a high profile outfit on the international stage these days, regardless of seventies muso peer acclamation) and Rooster Rag tickles your fancy you’ll find plenty to explore in that extensive back catalogue.

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