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(429 Records 17735 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/22/2008)
Bands who have been around a long time face something of a dilemma. Should they take it easy and just keep mainly playing their long-time hits, thus pleasing their fans, or do they engage in making new music, perhaps exploring new directions that might not go over so well with an audience whose musical image of the band may be frozen in time.
Little Feat have been together for 38 years now, forming in 1970 by the late Lowell George, and except for a few years after the death of George in 1979, the band has been at it in various forms since then. While Little Feat does keep their live audiences happy by playing such songs as Dixie Chicken and Willin', their recordings in recent years have been of all-new material that carried on the band's sound and tradition, but has gotten into some musical exploration. That is, up until now. On their new release Join the Band, Little Feat is revisiting some of their familiar songs in the company of some well-known musical guests. That has the potential of being one of those schlocky "show biz" kinds of things to do -- playing the guest-star game-- but in this case, it works out generally well. There are some tracks the band has not previously recorded, and the guest list is quite interesting, including Bob Seger, Dave Matthews, Béla Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Vince Gill, and Jimmy Buffett to name a few. For the most part, the result is engaging, though there are a couple of instances where the guests contribute little beyond their names in enhancing the songs.
Little Feat is one of the original jam bands, going back to the 1970s getting into extended improvisations in their live performances including some jazzy excursions, thanks to keyboard man Bill Payne. And their music has always been known for their great vaguely New Orleans-flavored rhythmic groove. That direction continues on the new CD as well, with a couple of tracks that launch into jams. But the most salient fact about this CD is that both the material and the added guests are for the most part are familiar to long-time fans of the band.
Little Feat's personnel line-up is unchanged since their last CD in 2003, with the instantly recognizable vocals and the guitar work of Paul Barrere, along with keyboard man Payne, bassist Kenny Gradney, and drummer Richie Hayward, who have been with Little Feat almost from the beginning. Also appearing are some members who have been with the band "only" since the 1980s, guitarist Fred Tackett and vocalist Shawn Murphy.
According to Bill Payne's extensive liner notes, the beginnings of this CD go back to 2003, when Payne, the ever-busy studio musician, worked with Jimmy Buffett on his CD License to Chill, which would eventually go to the top of the charts. Buffett expressed some interest in doing a CD with Little Feat, to be released on his own record label. Eventually, that happened, with a lot of the recording being done in Buffett's studio in Key West. But like a lot of contemporary recordings, a number of the guests were recorded in studios closer to their respective home bases. It's a generous CD with 14 tracks, many of them sounding as you might expect when you combine the grooves of Little Feat with some of the prominent guests.
A good example of that is the opening track, the familiar Little Feat song Fat Man in the Bathtub. The guest vocalist is Dave Matthews, who shares singing duties with Paul Barrere, and they are joined the New Orleans slide guitar specialist Sonny Landreth. The tune keeps its infectious groove and adds some additional sonic interest. <<>>
Featuring Bob Seger is the track called Something in the Water, not a Little Feat song, but which also fits well with the danceable nature of the CD. <<>>
About the time the album was being planned, Bill Payne writes, there had been some talk about doing a country album, so there is a surprising number of performers out of Nashville who put in guest appearances. Vince Gill shares the lead vocal on Little Feat's best-known song Dixie Chicken, which also features Sonny Landreth on slide guitar. <<>>
More laid back is a song called Champion of the World, by Will Kimbrough, which features Jimmy Buffett. Little Feat is not at their best on slow songs, and this track confirms that. <<>>
There are a few tracks devoid of the added guests. One of them is the band's version of the old Hughie P. Smith song Don't Ya Just Know It, which gives Shawn Murphy a little time in the spotlight. She puts it to good advantage. <<>>
Little Feat does a cover of the well-known rock song The Weight, by Robbie Robertson of The Band. The guest artist is banjo man Béla Fleck, whose contribution is fairly subtle. <<>>
For me, one disappointment is their remake of the Lowell George classic Willin'. The hit country duo of Brooks and Dunn provide the vocals while the whole track descends into a kind of commercial country pop song. <<>>
Perhaps the most appropriate guest on the CD is Inara George, the daughter of the band's late founder Lowell George, who lately has been rising in prominence as an artist in her own right. Bill Payne write in his notes about how most of the members of Little Feat were at the hospital when Inara was being born. She is heard on her father's song Trouble, nicely done with only Bill Payne's piano providing the accompaniment. <<>>
And a definite highlight of the album is the version of the Little Feat classic Sailin' Shoes. Emmylou Harris makes a guest vocal appearance, while there is instrumental support from Sam Bush of new Grass Revival on fiddle and banjo man Béla Fleck to provide, in this case, a tasteful a country/bluegrass flavor. <<>>
Little Feat's new CD Join the Band is a kind of self-tribute album, consisting for the most part of songs familiar to the band's fans performed with the help of some well-known artists. The combination works better at times than others. While it's good to hear new performances of some of the classic old Little Feat material, I think a better option might have been a live album, which would allow the band to apply the progress they have made on the songs after all these years. Still, the fact that it's Little Feat pretty much guarantees a good time, and this CD provides a generous portion of energetic, rhythmically infectious music, played with their famously excellent musicianship, this time with an occasional dash of country twang.
For sound quality, we'll give the CD about a "B+." there's a good mix and clarity, but the recording fell victim to the industry pressure to make CDs as loud as possible, so the sound is compressed and that kills some of the life from the msuic.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Little Feat after some 38 years since the band's formation, is definitely capable of some new tricks when they want to. But it's also comforting sometimes to go back to the old ones, throwing in a little twist. Little Feat's Join the Band is an entertaining set, which will likely find its principal audience among the band's existing fans.
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