Smart and Greasy
Little Feat carries on in its founder’s funky tradition.
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Lowell George, who founded Little Feat in 1969, is one of those almost mythic rock characters. Before forming the popular eclectic southern boogie-and-blues outfit, George had been a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Legend has it that he was kicked out of the band because his song “Willin,’” which he wanted to record with the band, contained overt drug references. Through most of the ‘70s, under George’s leadership, Little Feat became known for musically-complex rockers like “Sailin’ Shoes” and “Dixie Chicken,” tracks that mix a rural rock sound with bandmember Bill Payne’s New Orleans-influenced piano playing. Despite the band’s successes, George broke up the group in 1979 and later died of a massive heart attack after playing a show to promote a solo album titled Thanks I’ll Eat It Here. Payne, who has kept Little Feat rolling for almost 20 years, spoke to the Weekly from Jamaica, recalling that the eccentric musician was the kind of guy everyone wanted to be around. “Lowell was a little like John Belushi in Animal House,” he says. “Lowell had that impish heart but was a drop dead serious musician.” Nine years after George’s death, Payne and his bandmates decided to reform Little Feat after a jam session in North Hollywood. In 1988, they released a new album titled Let It Roll, featuring the rollicking piano-and-horn-driven title track, which proved that, unlike most bands, they had not lost their way despite the passing of their most important band member. Payne admits that upon releasing Let It Roll and Little Feat’s subsequent albums the band strove to make quality records that would not tarnish the Little Feat name. “We are in competition with ourselves,” he says. “We have a legacy.” Also, Payne says Little Feat, which has long been known as a potent live act, has learned from jam bands like The String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon that approaching gigs with a loose improvisational style can make for compelling performances. Little Feat have even tipped their hat to the jam band crowd by covering Phish’s “Sample in a Jar” on their 2000 release Chinese Work Songs. “We’re more a part of that scene than we used to be, but we kind of play by our own rules,” Payne says. On their latest release, 2003’s Kickin’ It At the Barn, the band expands on Little Feat’s classic sound with numbers like “I’d Be Lyin,’” a sleek reggae-influenced track sung by bandmember Shaun Murphy. Other numbers like the southern-rock-meets-jam-band tune “All That You Dream” and the fast-paced Zydeco workout “Cajun Girl,” dovetail nicely with their older work. Currently, Payne says Little Feat is working on a new album due out this summer for Jimmy Buffet’s label, Mailboat Records. “It’s Little Feat music and also some other people’s songs as well,” he says. The release includes a version of The Band’s “The Weight” along with a couple New Orleans tunes. Payne admits that Little Feat’s own compositions will go in a new direction rather than continuing down the same road. “Most of the originals are done in a slightly different fashion,” he says. Little Feat play the Sunset Cultural Center, San Carlos and Ninth in Carmel, Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 8pm. $57. 620-2048.