As they step on stage wherever they may be during their current 50th anniversary tour, the guys in Little Feat know exactly why they’re still there.
By Steve Houk
During their original, legendary, briefly interrupted 10-year run from 1969 to 1979, then-L.A. based band Little Feat crafted and kneaded and concocted and molded a helluva unique sound that, well, no one had really heard before. A sort of New Orleansesque jazz rock blues funk R & B vibe that stunned and elated and resonated and reverberated through a generation of 70’s rock and roll fans. So yeah, the music was a big chunk of it.
But it was also the band’s songwriting, the often deep yet sometimes whimsical, all encompassing, swirling, storytelling-type tunes, that separated the Feat from other bands of the time.
And now, 50 years after Lowell George left Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention to form Little Feat with Bill Payne — for you novices, the name Little Feat came after Mothers’ drummer Jimmy Carl Black commented on George’s “little feet,” but with a minor spelling change to “feat” in homage to The Beatles — longtime member Paul Barrere knows that when the rubber meets the road, right where you see pretty Alice in every headlight, it’s all about the masterful combination of their distinctive music, their evocative songs, and their lingering uniqueness that keeps people coming back for more Feat year after year.
“Well, it’s the music itself. It’s the songs,” Barrere told me a month before Little Feat brings their 50th Anniversary tour to the Warner Theater in DC on March 7th. “The songs are as varied as the players who play them. And it’s remarkable to me that we’ve managed to survive so long, being as eclectic as we were. That in itself is a blessing and a curse, because most record companies back in the ’70s, they wanted to be able to put you in a box. They’re this, they’re that, they’re this. They could never quite figure out where to put Little Feat. The box was too big. I think that resonated with our fans. And with music lovers who got turned on to us after the fact, it is because the songs are provocative, they’re evocative, they have nice little stories.”
Barrere joined the band in 1972 after they reformed following a breakup, and the Feat sound that George and Payne had created got a blast of funkiness from a startlingly talented new batch of musicians, who took both the songwriting and the new sound they were helping to mold seriously. Barrere would go on to write some of Little Feat’s most revered tunes, like “Skin It Back,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “All That You Dream” and “Down On The Farm.”
“We approached (writing the songs) like you would writing a book or a movie or something,” said the affable Barrere, who remains in the throes of liver cancer diagnosed in 2015, but has been battling it well. “You’ve got to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. And then the music itself when Sam and Kenny and myself joined, right after they had released Sailin’ Shoes, I think we funkified the band really. I think that got the people who just wanted to get out there and snake dance, you know?”
And it was George, who after a trip to N’Awlins, brought a big taste of that vibe back to the band. Coupled with Gradney and Clayton’s Louisiana roots, Feat really found their identity, infusing their already burgeoning sound with this shot of new yet old-style music.
“Lowell became aware of it after ‘Dixie Chicken.’,” Barrere recalled. “He went down to New Orleans and played with The Meters on one of their records, and he hung out in the studios down there. He got into that whole second line thing, and then I think that’s really where ‘Dixie Chicken”s groove came from. And then Kenny and Sam, both those guys were born in Louisiana, so they brought a lot of that feel with them. Let’s face it, we’re old, so we remember rock and roll when it was beginning, and a lot of that was based on New Orleans and Macon, Georgia, and Memphis, Tennessee, it had that same, what I call, real R&B.”
It took the surviving members nine years after George’s death in 1979 to get Feat back sailing again, and with a couple new buds along for the ride, they might not have had their Lowell, but at least their unique Feat sound picked up pretty much right where they left off.
“I’ll tell you a little story,” Barrere said with a skip in his step. “When we were thinking about putting the band back together for Let it Roll and writing songs and so forth, once I had a recording of ‘Hate to Lose.’ I played it back-to-back with ‘Dixie Chicken’ and you couldn’t tell which era it was from. They both had that same timeless feel to them.”
As for the set lists the band is crafting for this 50th anniversary run, it’s business as usual, as in they pick and choose from a wide range of Feat songs, hoping to change things up each night to stay fresh.
“It’s been the same for, gosh, probably since ’91 or ’92, which is never play the same show twice in a row. There are songs that if we don’t play them we get a lot of flack for it, like ‘Dixie Chicken’ and ‘Willin’.’ But for instance for this tour coming up, there’s a list of 55 songs I think. And at first stretching out, well, it means you can do maybe between 14 and 16 of them in a two hour period. I like to keep it fresh, I like to keep changing from night to night. I plan them so that everybody’s voices are heard. Fred (Tackett) said it best, he says, ‘It’s not really a set list, it’s sort of a suggestion.’ Sometimes you pull an audible, depending upon the audience.”
Little Feat has tirelessly endured for these fifty years, still drawing big crowds of devoted Feat fans who loudly sing their songs along with them, and proudly sustaining the Little Feat legend. But of course Barrere ponders what may have been if Lowell hadn’t passed, often wondering what he might have accomplished. And does he miss him?
“Not on a daily basis,” said Barrere. “But I think of what could have been, not so much for the band, but for him, had he survived with today’s technology and so forth. Lowell’s passion was in the studio. He really loved being in the studio, and would spend hours in there. Even back in the days, he would edit cassettes. If you can imagine him with ‘cut and paste,’ it would have been like, oh my God, you know? But yeah, we’re fortunate that we have these great songs of his that we play, so it’s like you don’t miss him, because you pay tribute to him every time you go on stage.”
And Barrere sums it up well as far as what the innate joy is for him and the rest of Little Feat today, celebrating their 50th year as one of rock’s most beloved and yes, unique bands.
“When I joined this band in ’72 and we did ‘Dixie Chicken’ in ’73, I was like, ‘Okay, this is cool. This is going to go on for a few years. Onward and upward.’ Other than the hiatus after Lowell’s passing, it’s been just a blessing to be a part of this band for that long. The band has grown. The playing has gotten better. It’s always been a work in progress.”
Little Feat performs Thursday March 7th at the Warner Theater, 513 13th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets click here.