Little Feat – Join the Band
by Suzanne Cadgene
Take a formidable, eclectic band, throw the artists’ music in a studio with (mostly) unrelated formidable artists, and what genius results? Join the Band. Little Feat solicited some 20 non-Feat artists to participate in this intriguing CD, and many of the resulting tracks prove greater than the sum of their parts. The Little Feat songs are (generally) led by the guest artists, while the non-Feat songs are (generally) performed by Little Feat, the exception being Bob Seger’s lead on the pure rock “Something in the Water.”
On the opening track, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” Dave Matthews sings lead and backup—adding 18 tracks, according to the liner notes—and it shines as brightly as any Feat version I’ve heard. The Feat’s (and occasionally Jimmy Buffett’s) keyboardist Bill Payne adds piano, B-3 and synths. Guest Sonny Landreth provides tasty slide guitar, and three other guitarists, Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett of Little Feat and Mac McAnally from Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, together brew a rich stew with overtones of jamming. One benefit Matthews and most other guest artists bestow on the listener is marginally better diction than Lowell George or his disciples, so previously mysterious lyrics tidy up just enough to comprehend.
Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn deliver “Willin’” absolutely beautifully, with Dunn’s unmistakable lonely voice conveying the song’s forlorn hope. Chris Robinson was tapped for “Oh Atlanta” because the Black Crowes used “Willin’” as one of their encores. Robinson delivers the snap, crackle and pop of raw energy this song requires, and if you can sit still for this one, you’re an alien lifeform, or dead. I’m hoping to hear both these tunes at Brooks & Dunn and Black Crowes concerts—they really do them justice.
The tender but unsteady side of the late Lowell George surfaces throughout, but Jimmy Buffett’s impeccable phrasing on “Champion of the World” (which he shares with Paul Barrere) inspires respect for Buffett’s talent. Lowell George’s daughter, Inara George, quietly delivers “Trouble,” accompanied only by Payne’s delicate and heartbreaking touch on acoustic piano. Running less than three minutes, when the song ends without resolution, the emptiness is palpable.
Little Feat takes center stage on most of the covers. The Band’s “The Weight,” long a Little Feat concert staple, finally makes it onto a disc (ably aided by Béla Fleck on banjo), and it’s better than ever. The other notable cover is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” another previously unrecorded number. With Barrere and Shaun Murphy on lead vocals, this swampy version includes everybody and their uncle on guitar and backup vocals (including Buffett engineer Alan Schulman and producer/keyboardist Michael Utley, plus Phish’s Mike Gordon on bass). The title and the line “This land was made for you and me” repeat often enough to make a point in this election year. The US CD will feature a Buffett-penned bonus track, “I Will Play for Gumbo.”
Little Feat might have achieved greater commercial success if their music could fit neatly in a labeled bin at a megastore. That the band seamlessly incorporates such diverse heavy hitters as Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris and Béla Fleck and Sam Bush (themselves crossovers) speaks volumes about their diversity. It’s a testament to their genre-bending musicianship and integrity that Join the Band works so well.