Tribute albums are often a cruel taunt. The typically impressive talent roster covering a legendary artist promises musical thrills a-plenty, but too often they underwhelm. Performances are too faithful or, worse, reveal nothing about the coverer or coveree. Goin’ Home: a Tribute to Fats Domino is the rare tribute album that pays off. It delivers interesting, entertaining performances remarkably often, and Domino and artists such as Herbie Hancock, Los Lobos, Art Neville, Corinne Bailey Rae, Elton John and Paul McCartney (singing in an oddly low register) meet on an equal footing. The tracks never become wholly theirs, but few remain entirely his (Randy Newman’s “Blue Monday” being the most obvious exception).
Not surprisingly, the most interesting tracks are the ones that are most transformed. Lucinda Williams’ “Honey Chile” is her at her most playful, which is also her at her most seductive. It’s a rockin’ blues version that rolls with a herky-jerky rhythm, and she sings it like she can’t wait to get her honey chile into the Airstream to jump his bones. On the other hand, Norah Jones sings “My Blue Heaven” angelically, as if she looks forward to a carriage ride with her beau, who’ll pitch her sweet, sweet woo.
Some decisions are more idiosyncratic. Neil Young takes the strings that were the most awkward part of “Walking to New Orleans,” blows them up to a cinematic scale, making them the heart of the song. Olu Dara and Donald Harrison add a squealing, slightly dissonant Aboriginal trumpet that serves as a serrated counterpoint to the generally sweet, harmonic proceedings.
There are a lot of pleasant surprises on the album, including the gently insistent groove of Willie Nelson’s “I Hear You Knockin’,” Galactic and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s powerhouse version of “So Long,” Robert Plant and the Soweto Gospel Choir’s beautiful, a cappella “Valley of Tears” and Marc Broussard’s vocal on “Rising Sun.” For him and Lucinda, the words become their thoughts, not like lyrics to a song.
Producers Bill Taylor and Adam Shipley made a point of putting New Orleans musicians in the mix where possible, but that never seems like a political decision, nor do the Dirty Dozen, the New Orleans Social Club, Rebirth or Lil’ Band O’ Gold meet anyone on unequal footing. The project and the material really do seem to have brought out the best in all the participants, and out of two discs and 30 songs, there aren’t more than a handful that are even pedestrian.
Obviously, the album’s success is largely a tribute to the songs of Domino and Dave Bartholomew. They are musically simple enough to be transformable, but with just enough details that they aren’t endlessly so. Lyrically, they’re direct, giving clarity, immediacy and a more human scale to a few artists whose muses can lead them into the ether. At 30 songs, it’s also a testament to how many good songs they recorded.