Rock And Roll Doctor: A Tribute To Lowell George

Various Artists

CMC International Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Denise Henderson

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/07/1998

I've always had a problem with tribute albums. I don't even like watching bands do covers at live shows. It just seems like nothing ever comes off quite as well as the original, unless the original sucked in the first place. Then, sometimes the cover can be better. I'd say at best I have mixed feelings on cover tunes and the results of this tribute to founding member of Little Feat, Lowell George, is a mixed success as well.

Lowell George has earned a reputation as a guitar idol among mere mortals and was further deified due to his early death at age 34 in 1979. While the band had been in disarray and broken up at the time of his death, Little Feat has since reformed and become one of those non-commercial success stories whose die-hard fans keep them in the money and on perpetual tour. While I appreciate the sentiments and obvious love of long-time friends, bandmates, and family members in attempting to put together this disc in his memory, I can't say it improves on any of the originals and sometimes is downright embarrassing to his prolific musical career.

At his best, Lowell George embodied that blend between R&B, Delta blues, country, and rock and roll. Not bad for a kid who grew up in California close to Hollywood but who remained a simple guy at heart. His use of the slide guitar in his music made a white man playing this funky mixture suddenly legitimate and appealing to all audiences. His body of work is unbelievably deep and varied and his talent appreciated by many-a lot of musicians he worked with independent of Little Feat appear on this disc including Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther and Jackson Browne to name a few. The appearance of a few people just stuns me including Eddie Money. Does he even still have a career? As a side note, a current member of Little Feat, Shaun Murphy, has worked with Money, but so what! And Randy Newman's appearance is just plain horrible whether a fan or not.

One of the most successful songs on the disc is the opener, "Cold, Cold, Cold", covered by Bonnie Raitt. Her past work with Lowell George was supposedly one of his most treasured. Raitt's scratchy, bluesy vocal style along with her excellent slide work culminate an aching and well-realized version of this melancholy tale of a man down on his luck and out of time. Also appearing on slide is current Feat member, Paul Barrere, who has always stayed true to George's original vision of the band, but cultivated his own unique playing style.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The Bottle Rockets with David Lindley on slide turn in a lusty rendition of "Rocket In My Pocket" off 1977's Time Loves A Hero. Lindley's powerful finger work has just the right heated, nasty feel, barely containing the intended sexual innuendo of the lyrics and music. Brian Henneman's aggressive and lusty vocals lets us know exactly whose rocket wants to go where as he teases "I got a rocket in my pocket/yeah rocket/Got your finger in the socket."

Another successful cut is "Roll Um Easy," covered by George's close friend JD Souther. Souther's sweetly seductive interpretation is haunting and demonstrates with quiet despondency how the hero pines for his woman as he implores her to be gentle and "roll um easy."

Jackson Browne's cover of "I've Been The One" is a tepid version of this George song. It's another case of a famous performer appearing on the disc who just performs badly and seems to lack any real passion or conviction in his effort. The saving grace of this cover is David Lindley's slide guitar work.

Equally dreadful is Randy Newman's take on "Sailin' Shoes," one of those mini-hits from Little Feat that often can still be heard on classic rock stations. This is a god awful dirgelike number which totally loses and buries the original's very much alive and kicking notion of misery and longing. Acting dead rather than reflecting the song's sadness is no substitute. In fairness, I've never been a fan of Newman and his voice annoys the hell out of me, so I probably wouldn't like anything he may have chosen to cover.

Perhaps Feat's most popular song, and certainly one of their best, "Spanish Moon" is decimated in a performance by Phil Perry, Merry Clayton and Ricky Lawson. This song deserves to be included in the tribute, but not at the utter expense and collapse of its gutsy, tough R&B tempo. The vocals in the original fairly roared with indignation and anger, this just lays there lamely.

Allen Touissant and Leo Nocentelli muster up a fun, untempo version of "Two Trains" which best highlights the New Orleans feel and sound central to many of George's original compositions with Little Feat. Also fun is Taj Mahal's take on "Feets Don't Fail Me Now" from the 1974 Little Feat release of the same name. Their energetic horn section add a nice punch to Mahal's bubbly vocal delivery.

Paul Barrere and the current Little Feat line-up do a decent job on "Honest Man". The song stays true to the spirit of Lowell George while adding a more contemporary feel to a song over 27 years old. Bill Payne's performance on the Hammond B-3 organ is great without having that bad cheesy sixties lounge sound.

"Trouble," the final cut on the disc, features George's daughter, Inara, who appears with the extraordinary pianist, Van Dyke Parks, and guitarist Ry Cooder. According to the liner notes, Inara's mother used to sing this song to her as a lullabye when she was a baby. This tune is one of the disc's best with a beautiful vocal performance by Inara. Her voice works in complete harmony with Van Dyke Parks's piano, neither performer overpowering the other but each commanding dual attention. The addition of strings add a luscious undertone to this selection.

Rock And Roll Doctor was obviously a lot of blood, sweat and tears for Lowell George's friends and family. Many of his past collaborators who kept him working as studio musician on their own work show up which I'm sure is founded on a deep respect for him and his work. However, some of his biggest fans are not necessarily his best imitators. Some things are better left untouched and perfect in our memories and cannot be improved upon, no mater how noble the intentions.

Rating: C+

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© 1998 Denise Henderson and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of CMC International Records, and is used for informational purposes only.