May 212024

Long Distance LoveWell, how about that! On the same day as a still-going Little Feat put out a blues cover album, Sam’s Place (review incoming), so too choose Sweet Relief to put out Long Distance Love, a star-studded charity tribute to their late founder and lynchpin, Lowell George. Star-studded? Well, let’s say the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin and Ben Harper are all present and accounted for, with George’s own daughter, Inara George, also putting in an appearance.

Lowell George was a slide guitar maestro, a singer/songwriter with a penchant for complex swampland boogie, polyrhythmic shuffles to delight both brain and bootheels. He formed Little Feat back in 1969, after a short spell with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. A set of well-received albums followed, until 1979, when George (a) dissolved the band, (b) released his solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, and (c) died of a massive heart attack at the age of 34. It took eight years before the relicts of what had assuredly been his band reconvened, and they remain a vital presence, with George’s songs still the ones the fans mainly come to hear. These are the songs that return to the spotlight on Long Distance Love, and the four and a half decades since Lowell’s voice was stilled have done nothing to dampen their vibe.

Set across two discs, it is with the Sailin’ Shoes track “Trouble,” that Long Distance Love kicks off. Going straight for the jangular, erstwhile Panic At The Disco frontman Mike Viola puts together a track upbeat enough to get a firm (little) foot in the door. Then comes Joachim Cooder’s decidedly odd “Cold, Cold, Cold,” a second song from Sailin’ Shoes. Odd? Well, it starts off percussion-heavy, as is the original, suiting Ry’s drummer son to the T. At first the dreamy vocal seems dialed in; it’s not until a saxophone chimes in, replacing the original’s slide guitar, that it begins to make sense. By the time the song ends, it’s turned out to be quite the earworm.

A bona fide highlight next, as Elvis Costello gives his best 20th century voice to “Long Distance Love.” With a pure southern soul sheen, replete with swirling organ and rippling piano, Costello hasn’t felt this possessed for some time. Bedouine then offers up a smoky country-tinged “Heartache,” with a male harmony, producing an altogether wondrous sheen over proceedings.

Bhi Bhiman’s “I’ve Been the One” doesn’t quite hit my mark, being somewhat over-power-popped, but Miles Tackett graces “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” with an appropriately meat and potatoes chug ‘n’ bluster. And with a name like his, of course, he is son of Fred Tackett–not a contemporaneous member of Feat when George was alive, but a long-term associate who cowrote much the solo album. Closing this first side of vinyl is Lady Blackbird, who strips back “Be One Now” into even slinkier form than Costello’s earlier “Long Distance Love.” It is also one of the first tracks to place a slide guitar so centrally into the mix.

By the time “Love Needs A Heart” gets its glorious Norah-esque cocktail blues rendition from Madison Cunningham, it’s become apparent what a classy project Long Distance Love is panning out to be. As with most so far, the arrangements apply a new lick of paint to the material, with little slavish copycat karaoke on show, which has the additional plus of pointing back to a need to revisit the originals. Jonah Tolchin, a relative newcomer, imbues a murky bayou vibe to “Easy To Slip,” an almost lazy rendition until an organ solo forces a mile-wide grin. Like Cooder, Jr., there is evidence of a keen set of ears in the studio, perpetuating a whole, rather than a potpourri of parts. Nice guitar too.

Eleni Mandel may be another name less well known, but the link is her membership, along with Inara George, in an all-female collective, the Living Sisters. Here with Milo Jones, they get a dab at “Dixie Chicken,” perhaps the bast-known song of the lot. Imbuing with an acoustic folk-blues vibe, their voices gel well, making their version sultrier than you might expect.

Ben Harper really has to up his game, against all these youngsters; trouper that he is, this is thankfully not beyond him. Harper takes “Roll Um Easy” touch and slow, acoustic bottleneck and harmony vocal the only partners to his own guitar and world-worn vocal. Larry Goldings’s “Lafayette Railroad” sounds exactly how you would expect Feat to sound now, and isn’t, actually, so different from how this instrumental sounded then, but with rather more of Goldings’ choogly organ than the slide, which nonetheless still occupies a prominent role. A player generally associated with jazz, and with a prodigious C.V., I’d like to hear him tackle more like this.

Pulling up the rear on disc one is Jack Shit, the side project of Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher from Elvis Costello’s band, along with Val McCallum, from Jackson Browne’s band. You may remember them from Rogue’s Gallery, Hal Willner’s pirate song project. “6 Feet Of Snow” gets an unreconstructed country rock rollick, curiously redolent of Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band. The Louisiana vibe of the original becomes transplanted to Bakersfield, and it is a beauty.

Latino artiste Gaby Moreno, now an honorary Angeleno, offers an even more pronounced Tex-Mex mariachi wash to “Cheek To Cheek,” one of the more overtly commercial tracks here, a fitting start to disc two, and the first and only song from George’s solo release. Journeyman singer/guitarist Chris Seefried then shows there is room here for honest homage, his “Two Trains Running,” which, if a facsimile, is high enough res to pass muster. Chris Stills then channels all his Dad’s vocal style for “China White,” which, in truth, drags a little, his gruffness a poor substitute for George’s own plangent plea.

With all these (relative) youngsters staking their claim, what we now need is some old school veteran to parade his wares. That slot is duly taken by Dave Alvin, a contemporary of George and as able an interpreter of nearly any American music style as anyone. Alvin brings his gravitas and an older time 12-bar blues arrangement to “A Apolitical Blues” than it originally had, thus granting it less a throwaway status than the original possibly was. Keeping up the heritage stakes, bluesman Sugaray Rayford brings Chicago to “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” complete with searing slide and barrelhouse piano. It makes for an effective switch from gumbo.

Another change of scenery comes for “Sailin’ Shoes,” which Taylor Goldsmith, mailman for Dawes, fills with N’Awlins atmospherics that encompasses both funeral marching band brass and a skittering rhythm. It is a further high point of this increasingly impressive album. George’s girl Inara doesn’t let up any slack either, sticking with that N’Awlins feel, presenting “Spanish Moon” like an outtake from any of Dr John’s gris-gris album, were, that is, Rebennack a woman.

Sam Morrow describes his roadhouse style as being beyond genre or geography. That’s as may be, but his “Rocket In My Pocket” seems to homogenize the syncopated charm of the original, leaving the lyric more nakedly out of time than it ever used to seem. Next comes Jonathan Wilson tackling Little Feat’s other best-known song, and one extensively covered at that. What to his “Willin'”? Pleasingly to report, it is a fairly unfettered version, with a shimmer of chapel organ on the horizon, with picked acoustic and clipped electric guitar. It gets an instrumental lift with a guitar solo that makes up for a slightly bland vocal. There are better renditions, but as “Willin'” covers go, it’s not bad.

The Bird and the Bee issue some sassy brattiness to “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” sounding like the Roches on amphetamines. It shouldn’t, but works better for me than the strip lighting glare of the band’s own version. This is also Inara George’s second appearance, she being “bird” to Greg Kurstin’s “bee.” I always found “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie” an odd old ditty, a bit of an outlier. Andras Jones, “better” known as an actor (Rick in Nightmare on Elm Street 4, anyone?), but succeeds in making that questionable song the most skippable track here. Which is a shame for Gus Seyffert, who hosts the final curtain, for “20 Million Things To Do,” sung as a laid back acoustic reverie, not without charm. In fact, like a couple the songs before, what initially seems lackluster proves on repeated exposures to be quite lovely.

Long Distance Love is a very good set. Played well and, mostly, sung well, it attempts to cast a different light on the material, and the hit-to-miss ratio is a good one. It should see to all the Featers out there, and there are many, but may well pick up a fair old number of new converts to the church of George, courtesy these interpreters and their own audiences. Well done, Sweet Relief, remembering every sale is going to help the plight of a struggling musician. Buy it from Flatiron Recordings or find it on Bandcamp.

Long Distance Love: A Sweet Relief Tribute to Lowell George tracklisting:

1. Trouble – Mike Viola
2. Cold, Cold, Cold – Joachim Cooder
3. Long Distance Love – Elvis Costello
4. Heartache – Bedouine
5. I’ve Been The One – Bhi Bhiman
6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor – Miles Tackett
7. Be One Now – Lady Blackbird
8. Love Needs A Heart – Madison Cunningham
9. Easy To Slip – Jonah Tolchin
10. Dixie Chicken – Eleni Mandell and Milo Jones
11. Roll ‘Um Easy – Ben Harper
12. Lafayette Railroad – Larry Goldings
13. 6 Feet Of Snow – Jack Shit
14. Cheek To Cheek – Gaby Moreno
15. Two Trains Running – Chris Seefried
16. China White – Chris Stills
17. A Apolitical Blues – Dave Alvin
18. Feats Don’t Fail Me Now – Sugaray Rayford
19. Sailin’ Shoes – Taylor Goldsmith
20. Spanish Moon – Inara George
21. Rocket In My Pocket – Sam Morrow22. Willin’ – Jonathan Wilson
23. Teenage Nervous Breakdown – The Bird and the Bee
24. Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie – Andras Jones
25. 20 Million Things To Do – Gus Seyffert

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