1973′s Dixie Chicken set a template for Southern-fried funkiness that Little Feat (despite a number of lineup changes over the decades) has never felt the need to redraw — right through to the forthcoming Rooster Rag, the band’s first album in four years.
The difference here is a welcome new focus on songwriting, versus the rangy but sometimes ultimately unsatisfying jam-based structures of their more recent outings. Credit Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, a new collaborator with Little Feat’s Bill Payne, who co-founded the group in 1969 with the late Lowell George. Multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett has also taken a more prominent writing role, after a long period in which guitarist/vocalist Paul Barrere served as the band’s main voice.
Couple that with Little Feat’s still-simmering sense of groove, and the outfit’s 16th long-player (due June 26, 2012 on Hot Tomato/Rounder Records) emerges as one of their most consistently satisfying projects in memory.
Of course, even as Little Feat seems to be working to more clearly define the parameters of its music, a sense of loose-limbed camaraderie remains. Barrere, percussionist/vocalist Sam Clayton and bassist Ken Gradney have been on board since 1972. Tackett officially joined in 1987, when the band reconvened after breaking up at the end of the 1970s, but longtime fans will remember him as the author of “Fool Yourself” from Dixie Chicken. The only new presence is Gabriel, who’s working his first studio project with Little Feat after replacing the late longtime drummer Richie Hayward in 2009.
Together, they goose Rooster Rag to its feet with a lip-smackingly ribald blues-by-way-of-Jackson Square opener, “Candyman Blues” from Mississippi John Hurt. The title track — the first of four collaborations with Hunter — finds Little Feat settling into a heel-toe hootenanny vibe that was for so long associated with Levon Helm and the Band. If someone is going to carry that legacy forward now, in the wake of Helm’s passing, Little Feat would be fine candidates.
Tackett’s “Church Falling Down,” a track that boasts devastatingly resonant imagery of changing times and lost traditions, then finds this group of Southern Californians diving headlong again into a bubbling gris gris. Belying his longtime association with San Francisco psychedelia, Hunter certainly gets some dirt between his toes amongst the sawing fiddles of “Salome,” with its talk of corn on the cob, black-eyed peas, fatback boiled in bone, ham served with salty gravy, roast potato pheasant and moonshine in a Dixie cup. That’s former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell playing violin on both “Rooster Rag” and “Salome.”
There’s more blues, with the Mose Allison-ish “One Break at a Time,” another loose, block-party-inspiring Tackett track; Payne’s “The Blues Keep Coming”; and a shotgun-shack shaking take from Sam Clayton on Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy” — which features a guest turn by harpist Kim Wilson of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame. An island flavor infuses “Jamaica Will Break Your Heart” (which originally appeared in a more buttoned-down form on Tackett’s 2010 solo album Silver Strings), and even some jazz on “Tattooed Girl.” Oh, and plenty of straight-ahead rock, too, though with the usual twists and turns — as on “Rag Top Down,” a Hunter/Payne car song that downshifts into this surprising sense of reverie; and “Just a Fever,” a track co-written by Barrere and the late Texas guitarist Stephen Bruton that ends up somehow both like furiously groove-laden and Buddy Holly-inflected.
Each is a gift-wrapped delight, not too long — but also not too light on detail and emotion, either. They’ve always been able to finish each other’s musical sentences. Rooster Rag shows that Little Feat is learning when it’s time to add a period and move on.