When you see the number of hits Fats Domino had over many years it's no wonder that this tribute is a double CD. The admiration still felt for Fats is demonstrated by the stellar cast of artists contributing versions of his songs - Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elton John, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, Randy Newman etc. Fats had a very distinctive sound and the downside of that is that it could be a bit samey, therefore for me the best tracks on this CD bring a new twist to Fats' legacy.
I'm not a Robert Plant fan but his two tracks (with the Lil' Band of Gold and the Soweto Gospel Choir) are both fantastic, putting a new spin on the songs but being true to the spirit. Simiarly Ben Harper and the Skatalites do a blue beat version of "Be my guest" which is absolutely wonderful - and perfectly demonstrates the influence of New Orleans R&B on Jamaican music. Lenny Kravitz sounds like Johnny Guitar Watson for his version of "Whole Lotta Loving".
Tribute stalwarts like Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt (with Jon Cleary) and Los Lobos contribute their usual high quality offerings but for me many of the 'older' performers like Sir Elton, Sir Macca, Neil Young and Dr. John turn in versions that are too respectful, probably indicating that they were big fans of the fat man. However, honorable mentions also go to young Brits Joss Stone and Corinne Bailey Rae who produce good interpretations, even though they weren't born when Fats had his last hit. (Although I do think that Buddy Guy should have left the singing to Joss on their duet of "Every night about this time".)
This CD is for a very worthy cause and there isn't really a bad track on it - I just wish that a couple of the versions could have been a bit less workmanlike and a bit more inspired.
Intriguingly this double album cover set came out in the same timeframe as "I'm not there", the Dylan covers pairing, related to the film of that name. But whereas the Dylan set had opted for only a handful of recognised names plus a lot of lesser knowns, this set goes the more obvious route of using quite a few big names in order to catch the eye of the punters plus several others associated strongly with New Orleans. Even for the "biggies" the backing often comes from natives of the Big Easy. I found both sets most satisfying probably for different reasons with each giving me very warm feelings about the health of popular music outside the mainstream. While Domino is a well known name, there's not actually that many people who really know his music outside a handful of his numbers, and a cover by, say Robert Plant, on this album, of "It keeps rainin'" is not likely to get that many plays on Radio 1.
As with any collection of covers there are two basic approaches that can be taken, the first being to stick pretty closely to the original but try and retain the feel without being downright imitative, and the second being to take far more liberties and see what comes out. The second is normally the more interesting approach but it's also considerably more risky. Without detailed counting I'd say there are over twice as many tracks here where the artist and producer has taken the second, more experimental route compared with those sticking more to the originals cuts.
Of the experimental ones I'd single out the following as most interesting:
- Both Robert Plant tracks, perhaps surprisingly. In particular "Valley of Tears" with the Soweto Gospel Choir accompanied only by percussion is an absolute treasure.
- More predictably Taj Mahal's "My Girl Josephine" which has the New Orleans sound to a tee - very nice organ from Ivan Neville
- And Ivan's brother Art, solo on the joannah, reminding us of the great tradition of NO pianists, not only Fats but Longhair, Booker, Dupree, etc., and also showing off some of the depth of talent in the Neville family
- But as another surprise Joss Stone wailing the blues on "Every Night about this time" works rather nicely and it was great to hear Buddy again, guitar and voice
- Lenny Kravitz and co give a real kick up the pants to "Whole lotta loving" and succeed beyond my wildest dreams
- Corinne Bailey Rae's "One night" - nice and raunchy
- Los Lobos, "The Fat Man" - but then I love Los Lobos - they should be in everyone's collection
- Ben Harper and the Skatalites plus Toots and the Maytals, both emphasising the New Orleans Ska connection
- And both Olu Dara and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux (what a name!) giving us some NO weirdness
- And of course there's old Willie in from the country with some more lovely piano, to take us all home
Of the more faithful ones:
- in their differing ways Tom Petty, Macca, and even Elton John all work well - although these are less original it's good to have some tracks to remind us more directly of the Domino sound
- the late John Lennon's forceful "Ain't that a shame" is a great extract from his marvellous "Rock'n'Roll" album - believe this is the first song he learned to play
- the massed chorale singers on Neil Young's "Walking to New Orleans" are rather nice but I wasn't so struck with Neil's harmonica - still prefer Bobby Charles' own version
- Randy Newman's "Blue Monday" makes a mess of my categories. It starts off as broadly soundalike albeit with that rather special voice but then little touches from the piano and horns give it some differentiation. Nice one Randy.
And how do you categorise "The Saints " from the Preservation Hall Jazz band? Lovely, Lovely music. The second Line that you only get in New Orleans.
There aren't really any bad tracks and there's loads of fascinating variation.
As a postscript I would just say that while on the one hand it's absolutely horrifying that it takes a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina to put Fats more in the public eye and even gets us a tribute album at long last, let us just say thanks that, (a) he is still with us, and, (b) there are a lot of artists out there with so much love for the man and his music that they were able to come up with this album and do it so well.
With the the TV series Treme having scored well in the US it's great to see music from NO getting some notice. Let the bon temps roulez and long may the Mardi Gras continue.