NEW ORLEANS SUSPECTS FEAT. MEMBERS OF LITTLE FEAT (LARCOM THEATRE, 4/11/15)

(Originally published in the Beverly Citizen on April 23, 2015.)

As prodigious session musicians, Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett probably have closer to 1,000 than 100 credits between them. To the extent that either is particularly well known, however, it is as members of the influential and enduring rock band Little Feat, whom Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page called his favorite American group in a 1975 Rolling Stone interview.

Barrere joined the band after the 1972 release of Sailin’ Shoes and first appeared on 1973’s Dixie Chicken, which was one of several albums on which Tackett played without being an actual member. He officially joined Little Feat for the 1988 reunion album Let It Roll.

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Little Feat’s early 1970s line-up.

While the résumés of Barrere and Tackett include some of the most noteworthy and popular artists of the past five decades, members of New Orleans Suspects can boast of having contributed to the indelible sounds of a handful of the Crescent City’s greatest music legends, including The Neville Brothers (drummer “Mean” Willie Green), the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (guitarist Jake Eckert), and The Radiators (bassist Reggie Scanlan), not to mention Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Professor Longhair.

Saxophonist Jeff Watkins cannot claim such Nola pedigree, but having spent a dozen years as the leader of James Brown’s band more than makes up for that. CR Gruver, meanwhile, is merely an extremely talented classically trained piano player who has the sound of The Big Easy down pat.

An occasion on which these two musical powers ended up in the same place would seem to be an instance of the proverbial meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

Well, this occasion happened on Saturday night, when Barrere, Tackett, and New Orleans Suspects converged on The Larcom Theatre.

The crowd was age-appropriate considering that the main selling point was the presence of members of a band whose first record came out in 1970. A few early arrivers reminisced of having seen Little Feat with founder Lowell George, who died in 1979 and who would have turned 70 this past Monday.

A woman wearing a T-shirt of the English band Blur’s 22-year old album Modern Life Is Rubbish may have qualified as representative of the younger contingent.

Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett took the stage together shortly after 8 p.m. with only a couple of Stratocaster guitars and a mandolin in tow.

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Paul Barrere (left) and Fred Tackett

Their hour-long opening set consisted primarily of Little Feat songs that one or the other composed, including “Down On the Farm,” “All That You Dream,” “Clownin’,” and “Church Falling Down,” which Tackett wrote, sang, and played mandolin on.

They did not neglect Lowell George’s classics, however, tossing in “Sailin’ Shoes” – which Barrere said was his favorite Little Feat song – and “Willin’” back-to-back in the middle of the set.

Before closing with Barrere’s “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” they sang a bit of “Don’t Bogart Me” (aka, “Don’t Bogart That Joint”), which is best-known for its appearance in the 1969 film Easy Rider, and a medley of The Band’s “Long Black Veil” and “The Weight.”

After a 20-minute intermission, it was time for New Orleans Suspects. The quintet immediately shifted into high gear for the lengthy instrumental “Blackbird Special.” Most of the group’s songs included at least two solos, be they guitar and sax, keyboards and sax, or drums and guitar. (I do not seem to remember one by the modest but busy-fingered bassist.)

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New Orleans Suspects

Each member received applause for his demonstrations of musical prowess before the songs were over. After the New Orleans Suspects captivated the Larcom crowd for almost an hour, Barrere and Tackett joined them for a 45-minute set of Little Feat numbers such as Barrere’s “Old Folks Boogie,” the Tackett-George composition “Honest Man,” and George’s “Fat Man In the Bathtub,” into which New Orleans Suspects expertly inserted a portion of Dr. John’s immortal “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” as the stage was bathed in the glow of red light.

The second set – during which focusing on any given performer would have provided an entire evening’s worth of entertainment – closed with the obligatory “Dixie Chicken,” after which all seven musicians returned for a two-song encore that showcased Fred Tackett’s trumpet-playing talents.

Overall, the performance was a labor of love for all of the players and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the audience. Those who infrequently attend live concerts will find nourishment enough in this one to hold them over until at least their next outing.

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THROWBACK: THE BEST OF BLUR

A Great Place to Start (and an Equally Bad Place to Stop)

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on February 6, 2004)

Blur is both a great singles band and a great albums band. The Best of Blur focuses on its prowess as a singles band, and in this regard might more correctly be called “Blur’s Greatest Hits.” (If I may split hairs, it seems to me that a CD called “Greatest Hits” should include pretty much only hit singles, while one titled “Best of” should more fully represent the artist’s “best” material, including hit singles and album tracks.)

Blur (l to r): Damon Albarn, Alex James, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree

Nit-picking aside, The Best of Blur serves as a perfect model for a worthwhile (and worth the money) compilation. First, with 18 tracks, it features about three-quarters of the singles that charted in the US and UK, plus one well-chosen album cut and a new song for good measure (the fact that about a half-dozen chart singles are missing is indicative of what a successful band Blur was in the 90s). Moreover, the content of this disc leaves no question as the overall quality of Blur’s output.

Finally, while this can only be realized in hindsight, The Best of was released at an ideal time, as the recording of Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank would mark the beginning of a new era for the band.

The most obvious shortcoming of this disc is that it slights Blur’s superb second CD, Modern Life Is Rubbish, by including only one of its tracks, “For Tomorrow.” The most inexplicable omission would be the the proto-Britpop single “Popscene”, but the singles “Chemical World” and “Sunday, Sunday” are also missing.

As it happens, however, this weakness is turned into a strength by leaving room for the inclusion of three tracks from its more experimental (i.e., less poppy, more personal) sixth CD 13. Here’s how that works: “For Tomorrow” serves as a great teaser for the Modern Life CD, which is brimming with great tracks, and should be owned by anyone who likes what they hear on The Best of. Moreover, 13 is not the place to start for someone who is being introduced to Blur.

Hence, the disc both whets the listener’s appetite and fills his or her plate. If the tracks from 13 don’t quite click with the listener (and there is no reason why they shouldn’t), at least he or she will have three of the best tracks from that CD here. And the absence of the singles from Modern Life gives one all the more reason to buy that CD, which anyone with more than a passing interest in the band – or in good music in general – should do anyway.

From Blur’s other discs, you basically get all the singles: two of the three from Leisure, all four from Parklife (plus the album track “This Is A Low”), three of the four from both The Great Escape and Blur, and all three from 13. (Two of the missing singles, “Stereotypes” – from The Great Escape – and “M.O.R.” – from Blur – are included in live versions on a limited 2-CD edition.) Also included is a decent new track,”Music Is My Radar,”
which sort of foreshadows – for better and for worse – the direction Blur would take on its next studio album.

While some of the hits are better than others, none of them are sub par as songs, and they all belong on what is likely to be the first Blur purchase for many listeners, especially American ones.

And while some may complain about the non-chronological order of the songs, the sequencing actually does a very good job of accentuating both the variety and continuity of Blur’s catalog.

The bottom line is that a compilation should be practical: it should serve as an introduction to encourage you to buy more by the artist, or it should be comprehensive enough to prevent you from having to buy anything else. That said, The Best of Blur is unlikely to save you any money, but it will make you happy to spend the extra that you do. If this is the place you start, it is unlikely to be the place that you stop. There are simply too many terrific songs on the band’s studio discs for any compilation short of a box set to be truly comprehensive. All the same, this is a great compilation to have even if you own the other discs, as it puts almost all of the band’s hits in one place. (I had four other Blur CDs when I bought The Best of. Modern Life, Parklife, and The Great Escape are also great places to start.)

Clearly, The Best of Blur succeeds at being a model compilation. Now, does this model compilation contain great songs? In a word, yes.

For the most part, it is catchy, distinctly British pop, with sophistication, some keen social commentary, and an impressive amount of variety considering that it contains music recorded in a span of less than a decade. The songs are alternately entertaining and poignant, and usually both. In short, this disc is an essential chapter in the history of British popular music.

Sure, the lyrics may not always be terribly profound, and there may be one too many “na na na” or “la la la” sections to fill space, but if that were a crime in pop music, then many artists would have to plead guilty.

But reviews of the individual records is the place to talk about the songs, and if you are interested in checking out Blur for the first time, I assume that you are reading those as well. At the same time, however, you are probably wondering if this compilation is worth investing in. Put it this way: the songs on The Best of Blur are the ones that made this group one of the most popular British bands of the 90s. As a whole, they suffice to show that while Blur may not be as great as The Kinks or The Jam (and that is too tall of an order for any band to fill), they are truly their worthy heirs.

Long Live Blur!