Little Feat to Celebrate 50 Years of Being “Willin’” at Troy Music Hall Saturday, October 19th
“When (Little Feat founder and guitarist) Lowell (George) passed away, Warner Brothers signed us immediately when we got back together,” says guitarist Paul Barrere. “But at one point they said, ‘Can’t you boys just tone it down and be more like The Doobie Brothers or something?’
The band’s response was, “You already got a Doobie Brothers for Pete’s sake.”
You’d think that would piss Little Feat off. Asked about it today, Barrere is stoic. “Well, you know. What are you gonna do? That’s the record business!”
Like the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, Little Feat rose above the ignorance of greedy record labels that concentrate on the bottom line with the sheer charisma of their guitarist Lowell George, The Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and The Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman. Mass audiences love the sound of an inspired lead guitarist, and when that lead guitarist fronts a band that writes great songs like “Dixie Chicken,” “Willin’” and “Oh Atlanta,” those tunes can hit a collective sweet spot in the mass market that raises them above the plethora of other great bands that never outgrow cult status, and the songs become earworms in the minds of the collective multitudes.
More than a half century into the great awakening of “underground rock and roll,” each of these bands, despite the deaths of their iconic leaders, has managed to retain a firm grip on faithful fans who find their live concerts to be enervating reminders of America’s popular soundtrack to life itself.
“I remember we toured with the Allman Brothers in the early ’90s and late ’80s,” says Barrere, “and I thought (lead guitarist) Warren Haynes was just amazing. He was such a good man to step into that position. It just depends on who the player is. John Mayer (lead guitarist with The Dead) is doing a good job. So, I think it’s a testament to those who are gone that somebody can come in and replicate to a certain extent and also infuse their own personality. We have no problem with carrying on the tradition of Lowell. He was a big part of the band, but as he always said, it was a band. The music’s the same.”
While the music may be “the same,” what keeps an audience loyal for half a century is that even though the core melodies may be sacrosanct, the solos within any given song vary from night to night. “We want to represent,” explains Barrere. “We also want to experiment. So, a lot of the songs have basically changed in a lot of different ways from tour to tour, and that to me is great… and for us, a quote unquote jam band, when we have a solo set up, I intro and outro (that) musical piece and let the rest of the band know. ‘Oh, I’m going into my solo,’ and then after a while, ‘Oh, I’m coming out of my solo.’ So, it’s just little things. You don’t wander too far off stage.”
To this journalist, many of the bands that identify themselves as jam bands can’t hold a candle to Little Feat, The Dead or the Allman Brothers if only because the jamming of these newcomers to the party is not backed up by real songs with strong melodies and lyric images. When I told Barrere that I thought his use of the words ‘jam band’ in conjunction with their style was not giving them enough credit, he came back around.
“Well, it’s interesting because (that term has been set on us) by other bands that respect Little Feat. They must think improvisations are jamming, and a lot of bands can get away with that, but if there’s a little stretch or employing improv, I don’t call it jamming. I just call it music. (I’m reminded of) those old Miles Davis recordings back in the ’50s and ’60s where you’d have all these different players, and everybody ends up changing up the songs. So, you just go to these places with them, and it’s basically a musical free for all.”
Little Feat pianist Bill Payne told me in 2012, “On jamming, what I tell people, whether it’s our own drummer who is trying to concoct a solo or anybody, you gotta have a beginning, a middle and an end. It sounds stupid, but there are those islands I’m talking about swimming between. It’s not just that Phil (Lesh), Miles Davis and Zappa used to do it. We’ve done it, too. That’s what I recognize as a musician.”
Not surprisingly, Little Feat rubs shoulders with The Dead in at least three ways. First of all, Lowell George produced The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street, their 10th and best album at the time of its release in 1978. Secondly, Little Feat’s publicist is Dennis McNally who was The Dead’s historian for more than two decades and wrote the definitive Dead biography Long Strange Trip. “He really is a cool dude. I gotta tell ya,” says Barrere. “He wrote us about two months ago. (He said) ‘I’ll be out of the office for a week, I’m going on a retreat.’ Oh, that’s cool. In touch with his chakras.”
As an aside, Dennis always made sure this journalist had three passes for each Dead concert when he worked for the band and invited my two sons to a rehearsal of Dead percussionist Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum show at the Palace Theater in Albany featuring several of the world’s most renowned percussionists. Both my children still play drums as adults.
Robert Hunter is another Dead connection. Hunter who just died last month was the Dead’s lyricist. He was the most avant garde lyricist of the psychedelic movement who did for it what Kris Kristofferson did for country and Jagger/Richards did for rock. It was Hunter’s lyrics that painted a picture that was totally unique for every individual who heard a Dead song. Hunter was the earworm to end all earworms. “I know Bill (Payne, Little Feat pianist) has been writing with him,” says Barrere in our interview conducted before Hunter passed away. “They do everything by text if you will. Billy says he’s never actually met Robert.”
Four of the songs on Little Feat’s Rooster Rag album in 2010 were co-written by Hunter and Bill Payne. “When I play with other bands, “Rooster Rag” is just one of those songs that sounds like it just fell off the table,” Payne told me in 2012. “I mean it’s really a facile song in terms of listening to it, but when you try and play it, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I warn people, too. I say, ‘You’re gonna find this song has a few twists and turns to it. Nothing dramatic, a couple three- four bars, six-four bars, etc., but the first verse is not like the second verse which is not like the third verse, and I’m not doing it to throw you guys or to throw anybody.’”
Paul Barrere adds, “You know, for me a good song’s lyrics project thought and some retrospective delving, if you will, into what the lyrics are, and I’ll get people coming to me going ‘I know exactly what you meant on that lyric,’ and you know they haven’t got a clue, but it’s great because it’s provoking people to think, you know. It’s funny.”
This Little Feat’s 50th anniversary tour marks Barrere’s return to the stage after several years off fighting liver cancer and fractures from a fall. They will be choosing from a tour repertoire of 52 songs, some of them chosen by fans on their website. Barrere admits they have new songs in the can, but we may never hear them. After all, the industry wants them to be The Doobie Brothers, and the internet that Barrere sarcastically calls he eighth wonder of the world steals intellectual property like pirates.
“People are writing songs. We don’t know if we’ll ever release ’em. But there’s still music coming out of everyone’s brains which is good. (The internet) is like God. You do something one day, and it’s quoted in The Times the next day. So, I don’t worry about people stealing. It’s been going on forever. (Someone) used to say, ‘Plagiarize! That’s why God made you an artist.’”
Little Feat play the Troy Saving Bank Music Hall on Saturday, October 19th. Tickets range from $49.50 to $79.50 and are available at www.troymusichall.org/shows_and_tickets.