Little Feat: The Biography
In the liner notes for Join the Band, Little Feat’s new, career-summing CD, Bill Payne describes their motivation for recording as a way of locating the band’s influences. When you’ve played together for nearly forty years and have the instrumental chops and ears that Feat does, that’s a lot of influences, so that they can work with friends from Jimmy Buffett to Dave Matthews to Bob Seger to Emmylou Harris to Vince Gill to Chris Robinson and Mike Gordon – and it all makes musical sense.
Little Feat is very possibly the last-man (and woman)-standing example of what used to be the norm in American music, a fusion of a broad span of styles and genres into something utterly distinctive. Feat took California rock, funk, folk, jazz, country, rockabilly, and New Orleans swamp boogie and more, stirred it into a rich gumbo, and has been leading people in joyful dance ever since. Join the Band sums up that story, and it’s a complex and interesting one.
And it all began because in 1969 Frank Zappa was smart enough to fire Lowell George from the Mothers, and tell him to start one of his own. Paul Barrere, Feat’s guitarist, wrote recently, ”It’s almost 33 years ago exactly since Mr. [Lowell] George came to the front door of the Laurel Canyon house I was livin’ in, with that beautiful white ”p“ bass in hand, and asked if I wanted to try out as bass player for his new band. As most who know the story’s end can tell you, as a bassist I make an excellent guitarist…”
Actually, there were about 18 bass players that first year – that seat took a while to fill. George first settled on keyboard wizard Bill Payne, then added drummer Richie Hayward and bassist Roy Estrada (also a Zappa vet). They were quickly signed by Warner Bros., and began working on the first of 12 albums with that venerable company.
The first album, Little Feat, featured the instant-classic tune “Willin’,” and the follow-up Sailin’ Shoes added “Easy to Slip,” “Trouble,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” “Cold Cold Cold” and the title track to their repertoire. Estrada departed, and the band signed up (on guitar!) Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass), and the new guys are still around.
1973’s Dixie Chicken gave them the title track and “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” as good a blues as any rock band’s ever written. The hits kept coming: the title track from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974) and The Last Record Album (1975), which included “Rock and Roll Doctor,” “All That You Dream,” and “Oh, Atlanta” – another Southern-based winner (pretty good for a bunch of guys from L.A.! In 1977, Time Loves a Hero delivered the classic title song, and their career to that point was summed up with the live Waiting for Columbus, truly one of the best live albums rock has ever heard.
Success is hard. It cost Feat their founder, Lowell George, who passed in 1979 while working on Down on the Farm. And it cost them their joy; shortly after, they disbanded.
In 1986, Barrere and Payne met up in a chance jam session, and found that they could still find that inspiration. What they had written in ”Hangin’ On To The Good Times Here“ - ”…although we went our own ways, we couldn’t escape from where we came, so we find ourselves back at the table again, telling stories of survivors and friends” – was of course true, as with any righteous song – and in 1988 they hit the road again, where they’ve been ever since, joined by Craig Fuller on vocals and Fred Tackett on guitar. Let It Roll re-introduced them to the world, and was followed by Representing the Mambo and then Shake Me Up. Craig left and Shaun Murphy joined in 1993; her feminine energy and powerful blues voice revitalized Feat, and 15 years later the lineup remains the same.
Live from Neon Park – the name was a tribute to the album cover artist most often associated with Feat – was a two CD set taken from shows at legendary venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, and Portland (Oregon)’s Roseland Ballroom. The studio albums Under The Radar and Chinese Work Songs added new favorite songs, especially “Calling The Children Home” and “Another Sunday,” along with creative covers of Dylan, The Band, and Phish songs.
In the early part of the new millennium, Feat started their own Hot Tomato Records and began to share their rich archives with their fans, producing the double CD collections of rarities Raw Tomatos and Ripe Tomatos from both fan and band tapes. 2002 also yielded Live From the Ram’s Head, a two-CD acoustic show, and in ’03 came Down Upon the Suwannee, a live show recorded on the banks of the river at the Magnolia Festival in northern Florida. Hot Tomato also gave the musicians the freedom to deliver solo work, as well, first with Fred Tackett’s In A Town Like This, and then Bill Payne’s Cielo Norte, an intimate, lyrical marriage of keyboards.
Little Feat’s rich legacy was acknowledged at the 25th anniversary of the monumental live album Waiting for Columbus when Rhino Records put out a special two CD edition of the original concert, plus outtakes, along with Hotcakes and Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat, a four-CD, 83 track boxed set featuring hits from all of Feat’s albums as well as alternate takes and rarities from a rich past, which has included playing with everybody from Bob Dylan to Beck, Willie Nelson to Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, John Lee Hooker, and…you name it.
And now there’s Join the Band, in some ways a summing up of all that’s preceded it. Bill Payne said it was about locating their influences. In some ways, it documents the way they’ve influenced the musicians who listen to them. And it certainly documents a musical career.
You can go a number of ways when you spend your life on the road. You can get eaten up by the stresses and quit, or just die inside and get bitter and think you’re owed something. Or you can hold on to your music and your friends and the joy of the people out front and keep the priorities straight the way the seven Featsters have.
Almost two score years later, they’ve been up and they’ve been down and they know where they belong – standing or sitting behind their instruments, playing for you. Join the Band will tell you that story – to now. Because the end is not in sight.
For more information, go to www.littlefeat.com
Management: Cameron Sears/Sirius Management (Cameron@siriusman.com) and John Scher/MetroHybrid (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dennis McNally ( DennisMcNally@mac.com) (415 648 4832).