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No small feat

Stewart Oksenhorn
Long-running roots rock band Little Feat plays the Belly Up. (Photo courtesy littlefeat.net)
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Paul Barrre says the tale of Little Feat, the band in which he has been singing and playing guitar for most of the last 33 years, is an amazing history.But Barrre doesnt specify what aspect of Little Feat he finds so amazing. And in tracing the story which actually predates Barrre, extending back to when Lowell George founded the band in 1970 there is a handful of threads to pull, all of them worthy of examination.Perhaps not quite so amazing is the fact that Little Feat still exists. After all, numerous bands that had their heyday in the 70s continue to take to the road. Kansas, the Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd all more or less contemporaries of Little Feat have been known to tour in recent summers.What separates Little Feat from that pack is that they are not trotting out an oldies show, playing nothing but hits and filler from the glory days. The sextets last album of new material is 2003s Kickin It at the Barn; before that came the 2000 album Chinese Work Songs, a latter-day high point. The 90s saw Little Feat release three studio albums plus the concert recording, Live at Neon Park; the 80s, the majority of which the band spent on the sidelines, featured three albums of new songs.Beyond the continuing release of fresh material, Little Feat hasnt quit coming up with new ideas. Kickin It at the Barn, for instance, features the bands first Spanish-language song, Corazones y Sombras. Not only does the song represent breaking into another language, but a new style as well. Featuring a crew of South of the Border musicians on accordion and Mexican folk harp, Corazones y Sombras which translates as Hearts and Shadows is Little Feats take on the Mexican norteo, a form they had not tried in their previous 33 years and 17 albums. The song stemmed from keyboardist Bill Paynes recent Spanish lessons, and his passion for the music of Mexican singer Chalino Sanchez, which he shared with his bandmates.The innovations on Kickin It at the Barn dont end there. Heaven Forsaken, with its chorus of Rise up, rise up, is the closest Little Feat has ever come to gospel. Stomp is a nearly nine-minute instrumental, and reflects the bands late-period embrace by the jam-band world. What connects the album to virtually every other Little Feat recording is the intense eclecticism. To go with norteo and gospel are flourishes of folk (Bills River Song), blues-rock (Night on the Town) and reggae (Id Be Lyin), as well as the swampy take on r & b (In a Town Like This, Fighting the Mosquito Wars) that has been the bands signature from the outset.You could say that about every Little Feat record its something different; its distinctive, said the 58-year-old Barrre, the bands most visible member these days, by phone from Seattle. Weve always stuck to the rules Lowell set out, which was there are no rules. You can do anything you want.

Singer and guitarist Lowell George, who founded Little Feat after being asked to leave Frank Zappas Mothers of Invention, is still the iconic face of Little Feat. The notoriously raucous George set the template for the bands Southern-fried take on rock, and wrote many of what remain the bands best and most enduring songs: Dixie Chicken, Willin, Spanish Moon and Rock and Roll Doctor.But George died in 1979, at the age of 34, shortly after a gig in Virginia. Little Feat released a compilation album in 1981, Hoy Hoy, and seemed certain to follow its leader to a too-early grave.This, however, is where Little Feat defied Scott Fitzgeralds line about there being no second acts in American lives and further evidence of Barrres amazing story. The band did go into a coma following Georges death, its members taking gigs with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bob Weir, Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor. Barrre had a particularly rough time, falling into addiction and reclusion. But in 1986, the owner of the Alley, a Los Angeles rehearsal studio where Little Feat had been a fixture, renovated the space with plenty of Little Feat memorabilia. The remodeled studio was inaugurated with the first real jam session of the bands surviving core.The reunion was consummated with 1988s Let It Roll. With former Pure Prairie League singer Craig Fuller replacing George, and Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt adding vocal punch, Little Feat amazingly had its biggest commercial success. Songs like Hate to Lose Your Lovin and the title track gave the band a radio presence it had never had in the years with George, and they followed the next year with Representing the Mambo. The albums showed Little Feat breaking more new ground: Let It Roll was marked by smoother, straight-ahead rock; the biggest hit on Representing the Mambo was the Cajun-spiced Rad Gumbo.Barrre said it was the quality of the music that urged the reunion. We listened back-to-back to Dixie Chicken and Hate to Lose Your Lovin, he said, and we dared ourselves to pick: Which one came from 1987 and which one came from 1972? The band concluded that the comparison did no shame to the Little Feat name.

Barrre notes there have been four distinct Little Feat phases. George formed the band as a quartet after getting the boot from Zappa. (Legend has it that George was fired for bringing in the song Willin, whose drug-filled chorus Weed, whites and wine was unacceptable to Zappa.) The original lineup released two promising albums that mixed Los Angeles oddness with Bayou funk.In 1972, Little Feat entered its second stage. Bassist Roy Estrada left, and George took the occasion to fatten the band with the addition of a second guitarist Barrre, who had failed an earlier audition to be the original bassist and percussionist Sam Clayton. The sextet, with Kenny Gradney on bass, released the 1973 album Dixie Chicken, which solidified Little Feats status as rock n roll heroes, and followed with a handful of solid recordings. In 1979, the band, fortified by the Tower of Power horns, released Waiting for Columbus, a high-water mark for live rock albums.An oddity of Little Feat was and continues to be its Southern sound. Virtually all of the bands members are products of Los Angeles, yet the rhythms and even the lyrical references Oh Atlanta, Dixie Chicken, the Georgia-set Rock and Roll Doctor come from the American South.Were Southern. Southern California, cracks Barrre, an L.A. native whose older brothers had gone to Hollywood High with George. Barrre, who speaks in a drawl that could come from the Delta, has a more serious explanation for the sound.Were just old enough that we were around at the instigation of this rock n roll thing, he said. And it all came out of the South. When I came up, I was listening to Little Richard and Fats Domino. Thats the birthplace of the whole genre, and thats what pushed us in that direction.Little Feat kept pushing in other directions as well. The band made ballads, island-derived reveries, lewd funk, blues and, on the final albums with George, some overly slick pop. The eclecticism fueled their creative satisfaction, but didnt do much for their popularity.More than once, Warner Brothers people would ask, Why cant you be more like the Doobie Brothers? said Barrre. But we enjoyed all kinds of music, from classical to Cajun.Nobody in the business world figured out how to market a band as eclectic as ours.

Little Feat became even more eclectic in its fourth and current phase. When Fuller left the band in the early 90s, he was replaced by Shaun Murphy. Nothing too odd there, except that Murphy is a female Shaun, and a woman singing in a testosterone-fueled band like Little Feat was hard to conceive. But Little Feat has handled the change with surprising gracefulness.Apart from the vocalist shuffle, Little Feat has been improbably stable. The septet that plays the Belly Up Thursday, Feb. 23, features five members Barrre, Clayton, Gradney and originals Richie Hayward on drums and Payne on piano who have been in the group since the early 70s. The new member, apart from Murphy, is Fred Tackett, who joined in 1988 and had been associated with Little Feat, as a songwriter and session guitarist, almost from the beginning.The group has been at work on two new projects. One is a studio album, being recorded for Jimmy Buffetts Mailboat Records. The other may put the band in a spotlight they are not accustomed to. Little Feat is serving as the core band for a tribute album, to themselves. Already under way, the collection will have Dave Matthews singing Fat Man in the Bathtub, Brooks & Dunn handling Willin, and Sam Bush on Sailin Shoes, with Vince Gill adding guitar to several tracks. Barrre hopes the CD is available by the end of the year.Meanwhile, the band continues to tour like kids; this year should see Little Feat hitting its annual quote of 100-120 shows. Thats a figure Barrre said would be unimaginable if he werent having such a good time doing it.I couldnt see being away from home that many days if it werent that rewarding. And it is that rewarding, the music and the guys, he said. Were blessed. Little Feats shows in the valley over the last decade an outdoor concert at the base of Highlands, at the Double Diamond, and at the Wheeler Opera House in 1998 didnt have the feel of band on its last legs.In 2000, Rhino Records released Hotcakes & Outtakes, an impressive set of four CDs, extensive notes, photos and artwork by Neon Park, who has been behind Little Feats distinctive album covers from the outset. Barrre was impressed with the package, and surprised at how many old demos and alternate takes were unearthed. Still, Barrre says theres more to tell and more to come.Theres a story that will be told, beginning to end, that people will be amazed by, he said. In the meantime, we dont want it to end.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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