The first time I heard Little Feat was in Hartlepool, my home town in the north east of England. Our friend Santos, a promising art student, had lost a hand in the local steelworks and was recompensed rather well. He spent some of that money on good hi-fi gear, and also created what was the first Walkman I’d ever seen. I don’t rememebr the make of his portable cassette player, but when he plonked some headphones on my head and sid “Listen to this” I listened. “This” was the first Little Feat album, and I was hooked.
40 some years later, here we are with the band’s 16th album, Rooster Rag. In the intervening years, they lost their genius founder member and one of the best slide players in the world, Lowell George. For some people, Little Feat ended right there and then – but not for me. They’ve had male singers (Craig Fuller), female singers (Shaun Murphy), they’ve split tup and come back together. And recently they, and we, lost the mighty Richie Hayward too. But still they keep on doing what they do best – which can only really be described as Little Feat. When it was hinted somewhere online that the band were going to record a blues album, I was very excited. I mean, I like everything the band play, but of course the blues holds a particular interest for me.
Well in Rooster Rag we don’t have an album made up totally of blues. What we have, in the best sense of the words, is a Little Feat album – but the blues are here in force. Opening track CandyMan is a Mississippi John Hurt favourite of Paul Barrere’s. When I interviewed Paul a few years ago on one of the duo tours he does with Fred Tackett, he told me that John Hurt was a huge influence on his playing, in particular his slide playing. Paul also is attracted to John Hurt’s risque turn of phrase too.
The title track “Rooster Rag” comes along next, and is the first time we hear Bill’s collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. When I heard about that collaboration, my heart was all a flutter! In it’s own way it sounds as risque as Candy Man before it, but features a great Appalachian swiniging feel to it, via New Orleans, with fiddle from guest Larry Campbell and Fred’s mandolin chirping along behind the ensemble harmony voices too.
The album continues with what, for some people, will be a surprise – Fred Tackett taking lead vocals on a song he wrote. I know, because a bird told me, that Fred has been having singing lessons for a while. Well, they’ve paid off. The song. “Church Falling Down”, is a moody descriptive piece, with great slide from Paul and piano from Billy Payne, supporting this tale of a church that Fred saw by the side of a road on a recent trip. And those singing lessons have paid off too!
“Salome”, another Bill Payne/Robert Hunter tune, takes us back down south, with a tale of longing for a working girl – if you can’t be tempted, it is your fault, not hers! The track wraps you up in the tale of this girl with a heart of gold – I didn’t want it to end!
Another Fred tune, “One Breath At A Time”, sounds like a classic soul/RnB song from the fifties, with a great horn section from Darrell Leonard and Joe Sublett, and 3 way vocals between Fred, Sam & Paul. “More of a momk than a libertine” sings Fred – I must ask him about that when next we meet!
“Just A Fever” had me carrying out that well known involuntary movement of Little Feat listeners everywhere – snake-necking. This is a rocking tune with a Texas shuffle feel. Written by Paul & Steven Bruton it features great trademark slide guitar from Paul – and is the first song I know of that features the phrase “delirium tremens”!
“Rag Top Down” is a low rider cruising song from Bill & Robert Hunter, though I don’t think most cruisers would “Pop in Miles ‘ Kind Of Blue'” for the ride! But the music , if you let it, will take you on this cruise around San Jose and San Francisco.
“Way Down Under” is a rolling up tempo tune by Bill & Robert Hunter, with typical Hunter lyrics that can mean so many things – “sometimes you make me wonder what does anything really mean”- here I wondered for the only time – what would Garcia have done with these lyrics? It will take a few listens to get the nuances of Hunter’s lyrics anywhere near clear, but musically it is great, sounding just like you might expect – with Bill’s keyboards to the fore, both piano and great sounding Hammond, the band push this along just as you would expect from Little Feat. But this is without doubt a great Little Feat tune on a Little Feat album – and, I will say, a great album at that.
The band have been travelling to Jamaica for several years, with their fans for week-long get togethers. I haven’t managed to get there yet, but folks I know who have made it say it is an experience not to be missed. One year, maybe, I’ll get there. The next song “Jamaica Will Break Your Heart Boy” tell some of that story, with great drumming from former drum tech Gabe Ford, excellent horns and guitar, but hints at some of the negative effect the tourism industry is having on the Jamaican way of life. This track will be great played live – plenty of energy and room to jam too.
Another Fred tune, “Tattooed Girl” features his trumpet and the song has a laidback jazz feel to it, bringing to mind languid, sticky nights down in Louisiana – “heat running sweet from the earth to the moon”.
“The Blues Keep Coming”, co-written by Bill Payne and drummer Gabe Ford, has a loping bass line that is echoed by the rest of the band, classsic Little Feat territory, as Bill tells the tale of how “Blues keep coming, I can’t stop them anymore”. Musically this has the hallmarks of being an epic live tune, with the changes followed seamlessly by Bill’s keyboards & Paul’s soaring slide.
The blues return to close the album, with Sam Clayton taking lead vocals on Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy” featuring guest harp player Kim Wilson – and some great individual and ensemble playing from the whole band. I see this as another live favourite – bound to get the Featsters moving, and a great way to close a fantastic 16th album from the best band in the world, Little Feat.
For me, Little Feat have always had so many layers to their songs, their sound, and this album continues that layering. Repeated listening will repay you many times over as the layers reveal themselves, musically, lyrically – and then there’s that whole Little Feat “thing” that makes this all sound so damned good!