By Max Stewart
Little Feat is the most underrated bands of the twentieth century that never managed to crack into the “mainstream” music world like other musicians of their era, i.e. The Band, Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc. That statement is not meant dismiss their extensive achievements over many years and droves of faithful fans, but the band unquestionably deserves more accolades and recognition than they got; I would also argue that they should be a shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Can’t we trade a few of the 1,000 times that “Don’t Stop Believing” is played on FM rock radio across the country for more “Dixie Chicken” spins? Please? I mean, the band has influenced everyone from Phish (who played Waiting for Columbus in its entirety on Halloween 2010) to Van Halen (who recorded a version of “A Apolitical Blues” on OU812), and even Jimmy Page stated in a 1975 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe that they were his “favorite American group”.
Hardly conventional, Little Feat formed when Lowell George (Singer / Guitarist / Rock And Roll Doctor) left eccentric genius Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention to start a band with Keyboardist / Singer Bill Payne and original Bassist Roy Estrada. In addition to the signature soulful inflection of his voice, George had a very idiosyncratic style of writing that blended well with the band’s preference to use unusual time signatures and syncopated rhythms. The resulting sound seemed like it originated from the South, which was partly true: Little Feat hailed from Southern California (Los Angeles), which no doubt added a sunny West Coast flavor to their twangy groove. Most notably, the Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor Lowell George and the Feat Physicians made a medical breakthrough when they successfully combined elements of Southern Rock, Blues, Americana, Soul, Jazz, New Orleans Funk, and Jam for the perfect antidote that has since been prescribed to music fans diagnosed with the potentially lethal, Boogie Deficiency Syndrome.
The Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area has been the epicenter of varying chapters of the Little Feat’s career, both good and bad. A bulk of the recordings for one of the greatest live albums of all time – Waiting For Columbus – took place at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University in D.C. in 1977. Additionally, the band up and moved to Suburban Baltimore to record one of their strongest studio efforts – Feats Don’t Fail Me Now – at Blue Seas Recording Studio in 1974, which became their first album to reach the Billboard Top 200. The band was in turmoil when they arrived in Maryland to record due to shaky commercial success and internal struggles, so getting out of hazy L.A. to record in the fresh air of Hunt Valley, MD was a much-needed, reenergizing milestone in the history of the band. Bill Payne actually referred to the eight months they lived in Maryland as “the best time in my life … it felt more like a band”, and Guitarist / Singer Paul Barrere met his future wife (a Towson native) during the recording sessions. The influence of the area is still felt today: George and his family lived in a rented house in Cockeysville where his wife Elizabeth gave birth to their daughter Inara Maryland George (one half of the current indie rock outfit The Bird and the Bee). In 1979, the most tragic chapter of the band’s local history occurred in Arlington, VA, when Lowell George died of an overdose in a hotel room after a solo performance at the Lisner Auditorium in D.C. The band would not reform until 1988, after which they would continue to return to D.C.’s famous Warner Theatre to perform in the area they knew so well.
On September 12, 2016, in fact, Little Feat made a historic 25th appearance at the venue to a crowd of adoring fans who have been with them through thick and thin. In addition to Payne and Barrere, the band includes Percussionist / Singer Sam Clayton, Bassist Kenny Gradney, Guitarist / Singer Fred Tackett (who became a full time member in 1988), and new Drummer Gabe Ford (who replaced Richie Hayward on drums after his death in 2010). Full disclosure, I am in my late twenties and did not live through their heyday and my vinyl copy of Waiting for Columbus was actually handed down to me by my dad. That being said, I have unwavering admiration for this band and I know many Millennials who have been leveled by the power of their songs feel the same way. Once I stepped foot into extravagantly decorated venue, I could almost hear the ghost of Lowell howling from behind the curtain.
“Rocket In My Pocket” fired things off for the night thanks to the swampy, reverb-laced intro riffs by Barrere and Tackett. Barrere effectively piloted the ship, taking lead on vocal duties and providing the first taste of his slide guitar finesse, while all the while tactfully navigating through Payne’s meteor shower of epic keyboard licks. Once we were comfortably in orbit, Tackett took the reins on “Honest Man”, a song that he co-wrote with George for his only solo album that was released just before he passed, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here. Tackett, Barrere, and Clayton provided layered vocals for the chorus that takes on a whole new meaning when reflecting back on George’s substance abuse struggles: “Honest man, doing the best he can”. The woman sitting next to me couldn’t wait to tell me that she had seen Little Feat when their lineup included George back in 1977 and she was just 16: “Such a tragedy. He was remarkable”.
“Everybody feeling alright?” Barrere inquired over a horde of “Feeeeaaattt” shouts that affirmed that all was A-OK on this Monday evening. There was a jovial energy throughout venue that amplified when Tackett’s islandy riff transitioned into the oddball yet oh-so-perfect, “Fat Man In The Bathtub”. Gradney was seamlessly in the pocket with Gabe Ford, keeping the rest of the band on course as ole time faithfuls were all on their feat: “All I want in this life of mine is some good clean fun”. The tune even incorporated a portion of Captain Beefheart’s “Abba Zaba” and Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters” before Payne and Tackett flew high on a steady improvisational foray. The band then landed us safely in the heartland for “Down On The Farm”, dedicated to Barrere’s farmer friends in “Humboldt County, California. [Who are all] leading the good life out there”. Barrere played a greazy slide intro until the band kicked in for a full-fledged, backcountry farm party. We stuck around the homestead as the band segued into a tune off their 2012 release Rooster Rag, “Candyman Blues”, with Payne laying down some Old West saloon-style piano riffs on top of Tackett’s tasty guitar leads.
“This wouldn’t be D.C. unless we had Mr. Ron Holloway,” Barrere announced before the local DMV saxophonist made his way to the stage. In addition to leading the Ron Holloway Band, Holloway has worked with the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Dizzy Gillespie, and is also a member for the Warren Haynes Band. His presence was immediately felt on “A Apolitical Blues”: the drawling blues tune really benefited from Holloway who smoothly started the blues improv relay by passing the solo baton to the wildly-talented Payne, who then handed it off to the swift and brilliant Tackett, who finally gave it to the anchor Barrere who brought it all home thanks to his (guitar) slide into victory. “They say this is the 25th time we’ve played here,” Payne said as he sat down for a little one-on-one with the audience before coolly transitioning into one of the high-water mark moments of the show, “Oh Atlanta”. Smiles and claps were abound as the Warner Theatre joined the band during the chorus of Payne’s tip of the cap to the Peach State’s capital: “Ohhhhhh Atlanta, Ohhhhhhh Atlanta, I said YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! Atlanta, I’ve got to get back to you”. One can’t help but hear the South in this band, especially on tunes like this one; the fantastic improvisational stretches remind one of the gladiators of progressive Southern rock, the Allman Brothers Band.
The congregation of Feat faithful continued their choral ensemble after the extended intro of “All That You Dream”, and the robust lead guitar parts interweaved with Holloway’s saxophone dexterity in a way that conjured similarities to the brass arrangements on Waiting for Columbus. We had a few minutes to catch our breath as the band unplugged for a couple of tunes off of Rooster Rag: the bluegrassy, Robert Hunter co-written title track “Rooster Rag”, and Tackett’s introspective mandolin-centric “Church Falling Down” that featured a perseverant bass line from Gradney. Both were strong live performances of cuts from the band’s new material that felt right at home amongst a batch of older songs in the set.
As soon as Barrere struck the first chords of “Willin’”, the woman next to me had the same ear-to-ear smile and gleeful shriek like she was in her teens hearing the song in 1977. “Willin’” was written by George and legend has it that when Frank Zappa heard it while George was still in the Mothers of Invention, Zappa encouraged him to go out on his own and start his own venture. This Americana trucker anthem included a few lyric adjustment to pay homage to the DMV: “Virginia Alice” replaced “Dallas Alice”, and “Right here in Washington, D.C., having a good ole time” was used in place of one “Willin” line. For my money, nothing beats the soul-shaking, kumbaya moment when the “Weed, Whites and Wine” phrase is sung in A Capella by the entirety of the crowd (Barrere actually had a nice wisecrack before the first chorus: “This is where I get y’all to sing along…”). The song contained a brief interlude to plug their fan getaway weekend in Jamaica (where fans can see Little Feat perform with others and hang on the beach with their musical idols) while some of the crowd took some time to spark up a-uhhhh, a-hem, a toast in the theatre before they went into the “Jamaican National Anthem”, as Barrere called it: “Don’t Bogart That Joint”. Barrere continued the entertaining on-stage banter, referencing the revised D.C. marijuana laws and suggested the crowd just “throw [some] up here” (someone actually did throw a J on stage later in the set). The band then returned from Jamaica in a fog, but not before they hit “Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah” to wrap up the timeless song.
The Feat did not skip a beat when they undertook The Band’s classic “The Weight”, doing the song justice while adding their own unique twists that included more prominent piano fills from Payne and a shuffling mandolin part by Tackett. Not to mention the crowd took a load off (for free) as honorary background singers during the chorus. Holloway returned to the stage and Tackett picked up the trumpet for the extended and jazz-infused introduction to the otherwise honky-tonk stomper, “Dixie Chicken”. This was yet another instance of interactive crowd bliss and another reason why we need to get this tune (and many others from the Feat catalogue) in the rotation on Classic Rock Radio. More people need to experience this magic. Holloway’s saxophone impeccably augmented the guitar part typically played after the chorus, after which the guitarists and Gradney took a brief breather backstage. At that point, it was a total ambient jazz interlude with Payne, Holloway, Clayton and Ford jamming the middle section of the song. The Payne-Holloway-Ford-Clayton Jazz Fusion Quintet, anyone? I’d pay to see that (they might want to work on coming up with a better name though).
Gradney, Barrere, and Tackett returned to the stage swinging for a full throttle closing section of the song before the band turned it up again for the rocking “Tripe Face Boogie”, a song that got even the most stubborn hips shaking. The funky shuffle “Mellow Down Easy” featured steadfast percussionist Clayton on lead vocals who provided a rugged change of pace. Clayton continued to add his meaty but well-rounded flavor on vocals as the band went into the thrilling journey through the night, “Spanish Moon”, with the ace of bass Gradney stoically holding it down on the song’s recognizable riff. This seamlessly segued into Barrere’s greatest writing accomplishment and a personal favorite, “Skin It Back”, which was actually featured on Side One of Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (along with Payne’s “Oh Atlanta” and George’s “Rock and Roll Doctor” and “Spanish Moon”, too). Off-kilter keyboards combined with Holloway’s funk-fuelled tenor sax allowed this to be the perfect bookend to an all-encompassing set.
No one was headed home, though, as the chants and cheers continued until the band returned to the stage for their first encore, “Old Folks Boogie”. This tune was a (half) joking acknowledgement as Father Time was knocking at the door of some fans in attendance, with lyrics that likely hit way closer to home than they did back in the Seventies: “You know that you’re over the hill, when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill”. Appropriately, the second encore included the title track to their exceptional, Maryland-recorded Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. The Feat certainly did not fail in D.C. as the cohesive musical unit assumed a victory formation during the final tune, which was the superlative zinger to top off their unique blend of Rock ‘N’ Soul Gumbo of the evening.
Little Feat absolutely deserve a shot at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, should get more airplay on the radio, and certainly are worthy of more mainstream recognition. Having said that, the close-knit contingent of fans has made their concerts such a communal and fun experience. You don’t see the Stones doing a Jamaica fan excursion, do you? In a sense, the fact that they are not as well-recognized does mean that those that love the band cling to their music in a much more deeply personal way than if it were forced down the ears of the masses like countless inferior bands out there on the radio. For that reason, Little Feat may be exactly where they are meant to be in the world of music.
During the first encore, Payne sincerely announced “D.C. is a wonderful home for us. It’s always in our hearts, we appreciate that”. As a Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area-based Little Feat supporter, I think I speak for all local fans when I say with equal sincerity that the feeling is mutual and y’all are welcome back anytime.
Little Feat – 9.12.16 – Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Rocket In My Pocket
Fat Man In The Bathtub > Abba Zaba (Captain Beefheart cover) / Walk On Guilded Splinters (Dr. John cover) > Fat Man In The Bathtub
Down On The Farm
A Apolitical Blues*
All That You Dream*
A Church Falling Down
Willin’ > Don’t Bogart That Joint > Willin’
The Weight (The Band cover)
Tripe Face Boogie*
Mellow Down Easy*
Spanish Moon* > Skin It Back*
1st Encore: Old Folks Boogie*
2nd Encore: Feats Don’t Fail Me Now*
* Ron Holloway on sax