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Published: 2012/07/03
by Larson Sutton

Little Feat
Rooster Rag


Little Feat’s Rooster Rag, the sextet’s 16th and latest studio recording, is an album of firsts. Not an easy task for a group entering its fifth decade. The first to introduce drummer Gabriel Ford, replacing founding member Richie Hayward following his passing in 2010, the collection is also the first since the departure of singer Shaun Murphy, who spent 15 years with the ensemble. Additionally, it welcomes the arrival of Robert Hunter, longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead and cohort of the late Jerry Garcia, as he teams with keyboardist Bill Payne, co-writing four of the album’s 12 cuts. It’s a push as to which of the three changes deals the most affecting card to the hand, but as with any Little Feat effort, the band is all in and not bluffing.

Initially conceived as an all-blues affair, the album’s opener, “Candy Man Blues,” is an appropriate turn on the Mississippi John Hurt tune. Soaked in double entendre’ in which Little Feat traditionally bathes, the kick-off is a corker, particularly for a song often sandwiched live with the classic “Down on the Farm.” The title track assumes the second slot, replete with the foot-stomp fancy fiddling of Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and brass attack of trumpeter Darrell Leonard and saxophonist Joe Sublet. A Payne/Hunter composition, its saloon-slinging swing lends further credence to the (mis)perception of Little Feat as a Southern band. Drawn out of Texas as a teen, Payne’s suitably rollicking piano extends its roots deeply into Americana country, but is equally shaped by the bawdy twist of Hunter’s smiling California outlaw persona.

Equally true on “Salome,” with its second-line sensibility highlighting Ford’s capacity to both assimilate and propel. An ode to a whorehouse with home cooking, (perhaps one and the same in this application), the Payne/Hunter duo wink their way through territory that feels recalled rather than invented.

Not all funk and frolic, guitarist Fred Tackett delivers the eerie “Church Falling Down,” with gospel-tinged gloom that hangs like Spanish moss on bayou Cypress, and “Tattooed Girl,” a laid-back lament spotted with humid trumpet notes dripping from the balconies of Bourbon Street. Recorded at Johnny Lee Schell’s Los Angeles studio, the production from Payne and guitarist Paul Barerre is unvarnished yet crystalline, demonstrated by a clearly-audible knocking of the slide on the neck of his acoustic during Barrere’s “Church” solo. Tastefully balanced, the crunchy, compressed electric guitars, glistening acoustics and mandolin, bobbing bass, weaving percussion, and shimmering keyboards are all in the pot, with none of the soul digitally edited out.

Another Tackett entry, the downbeat shuffle “One Breath at a Time,” divides the vocal duties into three, with Tackett, Barrere, and percussionist Sam Clayton sharing the load. Barrere’s “Just a Fever,” co-written with the late Stephen Bruton ( Crazy Heart ) belts out beasty modern blues, belied by the Payne/Hunter cruiser “Rag Top Down,” a travelogue of Northern California highways and relationship metaphors.

Not be forgotten amongst all the superlative songwriting is Ford’s tackle box of timekeeping, particularly on “Way Down Under,” a pulsating, polyrhythmic popper that reassures life after Hayward is going to be okay, reiterates bassist Kenny Gradney’s master strokes, and is as requisite Little Feat as is the successive shifting and exotic “Jamaica Will Break Your Heart.”

Present and past cohabitate on the Payne/Ford original “The Blues Keep Coming,” and closing number “Mellow Down Easy,” a take on the 1954 Little Walter number augmented by the jump-up and dance harmonica of former Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson. Whether homemade or homage, this coupling is indicative of the album as a whole, displaying the unique beauty of this band; that it can spread four different lead voices across an album, bend genres into shapes both traditional and transcendent, and remain instantly recognizable. One thing that isn’t a first; listening to Little Feat continues to be so much fun.

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