By John Mikeska
Every once in a while an album comes along that completely changes the way you think about a band. For me that band is Little Feat and the album is their timeless live offering, Waiting For Columbus. Spanning the course of seven shows in 1977, the band makes their way through a set of swampy blues-rock in a uniquely 70’s paradigm that reaches other-worldly altitudes. Little Feat is a band that makes you think many contemporary bands aren’t as revolutionary as you thought.
It’s one thing to hear the album, but it takes on awe-inspiring qualities when you sit back and listen to it.
First off, lead vocalist and slide-guitarist, Lowell George is an immense talent and should be heralded as a national treasure. His vocal work and lyrical contributions are timeless in-and-of-themselves. Not to mention, as a session guitarist he played on Robert Palmer’s cover of Allen Toussaint’s Sneaking Sally Through The Alley and as a producer, he produced The Grateful Dead’s 1978 album Shakedown Street. Combined with keys player Bill Payne, rhythm/lead guitarist Paul Barrere, Richard Hayward on drums, and bassist Kenny Gradney, Little Feat came together and made something special with Waiting For Columbus (especially considering the ensuing disbandment of Little Feat and George’s untimely passing).
Waiting for Columbus is an impressively thorough expression of the times in which it was created. They’re playing all the sounds available to them and pulling it off in a unique way that celebrates the cultural heritage of the American South (even though they’re a California band), and more-than-adequately covers the eclectic influences of the day. There’s jazz, blues, rock n’ roll, boogie, folk, gospel, soul and the many expressions of these styles within the Americana framework.
The party gets started with a klanky cowbell run that leads into a pot-stirring vibe as “Fat Man in a Bathtub” gets revved up. This tune exemplifies the attitude of Little Feat that never takes itself too seriously; allowing the music to breathe without the air of seriousness that constricts many acts. The improvisational aptitude of the band more than compensates for any nonsensical attitudes displayed in their lyrics. Which are satisfying and flush with wit and humor.
“All That You Dream” opens up as an up-tempo rock city number before breaking into the glorious chorus of “I’ve been down, but not like this before”. Seemingly, to celebrate the perspective of the downtrodden as they harmonize beautifully through this gripping serenade.
“Oh! Atlanta” is the kinda tune that makes you look at ATL from a different angle. One that says “there must be something to this city”. A good ole’ country get-down that moves through luscious musical changes and makes you think, “there’s definitely some tonk in that honkey”. Upon taking a closer look at this song, I realized that I didn’t fully appreciate the creativity and musical awareness of Little Feat. Notably, Payne’s vocals throughout the verse are syncopated and stylized in truly original form.
“Old Folks Boogie” creeps up with a jazzy blues feel and lyrical content that shows how these guys can have fun with their music.
“And you know that you’re over the hill – When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill – Doin’ the old folks boogie – And boogie we will – ‘Cause to us the thought’s as good as the thrill” is a hilariously accurate insight to the aging process.
“Spanish Moon” is a song that plays like a soundtrack to wherever you end up at the end of “On Your Way Down” (included on the extended 2002 release). A low-down sinister groove, rife with visceral storytelling and a prominent feeling that it’s good to be bad, “Spanish Moon” has one of the baddest bass lines on the album. The low-end here is heavier than lead and trudges through the filth of the visceral storyline.
At the moment, I can hardly think of a band that weaves as rich a narrative and moves through it with such compelling musical dexterity. As if to place exclamatory punctuations, the “Tower of Power” horn section lies in wait to unleash their brass-blasting fury.
Moving on to one of Little Feat’s most famous songs, a little left-hand piano boogie quickly opens up to some right-hand woogie as the extended/re-worked version of “Dixie Chicken” takes flight. Complete with an extended piano solo that traverses through a syncopated Fats Waller/Jelly-Roll Morton style and leads into a delightful, Dixieland breakdown with the Tower of Power horns. Cascading piano, sultry clarinet, trumpet and trombone lead the jam before it explodes into “Tripe Face Boogie” which features a tantalizing mix of synthesized sounds and Rhodes piano through the instrumental section.
“Willin’ > Don’t Bogart That Joint” is a slowed-down country crooner section with a beautiful, lonesome feel to it. Riding the edge between all-out-sorrow and a feeling of redemption that says “I’ve been through some shit, but I’m gonna be alright.. And damnit, if I’m not gonna be better off for it.” Speaks to a man at the end of his rope, but ready to heed the omen of progress:
“A political Blues > Sailin’ Shoes” marks the downright bluesiest section of the album. It starts off chuggin’ down the tracks and settles into a juke-joint vibe that carries through until the last track on the album; Bill Payne’s “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now”. A song that features a frothy bass line that keeps comin’ back for more. Drummer, Richard Hayward drops it into gear while Lowell’s vocals rev up the engine on this beast, for an expansive journey fitting to close out the album.
Little Feat represents a brand of Southern culture that belongs to everyone. Much in the same way that the 1776 ethos isn’t only identifiable to Boston, or Philly. They connect with something in all of us and deal with the full experience; the celebration of life, the evil urges, and a humorous outlook on the hard times that keeps the soul light.
Simply stated, Waiting For Columbus is a timeless classic, worthy of any record collection. Give this album a spin, and then maybe Phish’s 2010 “musical costume” from Atlantic City (if you’re feeling adventurous) as a prep for Little Feat’s recently announced reunion tour.