Jun 052024

Sam's PlaceA new Little Feat album seems remarkable enough; as in, are they still a thing? The fact that Sam’s Place is a (mostly) covers album, and a blues cover album at that, is less so. Which seems a tad snarky as, actually, in a gourmet-grits-no-grocery, cordon-bleu-meat-and-potatoes way, the album has its pockets jammed full of charm.

Sam’s Place is Little Feat’s first “new” album in 12 years. With a back catalog as long as Little Feat’s, one might ask if they even need to bother with new product. Sam’s Place doesn’t really answer that question, as the “new” material here is anything but new. Perhaps this is their Blue and Lonesome, a stopgap release from a band that’s past its peak but has something still left in the tank. Only time will tell.

The first track on Sam’s Place is the only original, the Fred Tackett/Sam Clayton/Scott Sharrard-penned “Milkman.” Original is, I fear, a generous description. It’s a generic blues belter, with lyrics and melody a mix of recycle and regurge, smoke and mirrors around an if-it-ain’t-broke-get-down-and-boogie template. But–and this is both the bonus and the point–when an artist plays it this well, it don’t really matter. The only real question is as to whether Clayton is really the best man in a six-piece band to trust with the microphone. We’ll return to that.

Howlin’ Wolf’s “You’ll Be Mine” immediately identifies the origin and that template, but with Bill Payne’s piano rattling joyously all over the shop, and Sharrard’s slide a tsunami of sonic energy. As to any doubts about Clayton, they dissipate as easy as shit off a shovel. A belter of a version.

“Long Distance Call,” the first of the album’s five Muddy Waters covers, slips down a gear into an acoustic lope, twelve bars gifted with a pleading parsimony. Just as you are again admiring the fit of Clayton’s ashtray vocal, none other than Bonnie Raitt pops up to add her contrasting honey. An old friend of the band, it is a lift to find her here. With a lonesome harp moaning in the background, the song is another beaut.

“Don’t Go No Further” introduces some of the cheesiest organ this side of Switzerland, along with a background holler-style repeated chorus. The blues hasn’t felt this much fun since, well, since the blues were this much fun. The harmonica is, again, grand. It comes, across the whole album, from a second guest, Michael “Bull” LoBue.

With his pinky-dink fluid piano back to the fore, Payne leads the romp of “Can’t Be Satisfied,” with oodles more slide from Sharrard. It is also worth a shout for the conspicuously inconspicuous merit of the hardworking engine room, bassist Kenny Gradney and drummer Tony Leone playing respective blinders. This is all going to make for some sterling live performance.

A slow walking guitar beckons in “Last Night,” all the polish courtesy the decades of roadwork these veterans have under their belts, any added edges by now long worn away. There is no innovation to this Little Walter cover, and none is needed, this being neither reinterpretation nor remix: this is revival! “Why People Like That” is perhaps the most Little Feat-y song here, brass now hooking in to round up the sound; it’s tempting to imagine how Lowell George might have tackled this material. Adding to this flight of fancy, “Mellow Down Easy” even invites a comparison to his own song, Feat favorite “Roll Um Easy,” if in name alone. But it’s nothing like it, being a romp of a roustabout, filled up to frantic, everyone playing for their lives.

I think I’d have left it at that, to be fair, the finale, a live rendition of the possibly slightly too hoary old chestnut of “Got My Mojo Working.” The Muddy masterpiece is covered perhaps too often and usually not that well, any and every bar band in the world cranking it out in postures of unmet credibility. Which isn’t to say this version isn’t good; it’s fine… but you’d expect that. Naysayers of the wisdom of blues covers albums will latch on to this one track, using it as the example of a point proven around the worthlessness of such enterprises. Sorry, but it feels like cliché and it feels like auto-pilot.

Which is a shame, as the rest of Sam’s Place is a vibrant and living project. It serves as way more than stopgap. It introduces Sharrad and Leone to Little Feat LP alums, and it brings Chess Records and three of its own alums back into the spotlight (never an unwelcome thing). Finally, it proves that Little Feat don’t wanna hang up their rock ‘n’ roll shoes, let alone their blues shoes, and if they’re still playing this well, there’s no reason for them to do so for a long time to come.

Sam’s Place tracklisting:

1. Milkman (original)

2. You’ll Be Mine (Howlin’ Wolf cover)

3. Long Distance Call (Muddy Waters cover)

4. Don’t Go No Further (Muddy Waters cover)

5. Can’t Be Satisfied (Muddy Waters cover)

6. Last Night (Little Walter cover)

7. Why People Like That (Muddy Waters cover)

8. Mellow Down Easy (Little Walter cover)

9. Got My Mojo Working (Muddy Waters cover)

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