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Musicians Before Legends PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 09 August 2005 18:00
With bringing-down-the-house hits such as “Dixie Chicken,” “Time Loves Hero,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” Little Feat is legendary. Just don’t tell that to songwriter and lead guitarist Paul Barrére.

“We don’t really look at ourselves as being legend. We look at ourselves as being musicians,” said Barrére, whose band will be closing the inaugural River Roots Live festival on August 20. “We’re definitely musicians’ musicians. We’re not pop icons, but we have a great following. We’ve never reached stardom status, which is good because that allows us to continue to be musicians and not worry about anything superficial. ... Our fan base really enjoys seeing how we interpret a song from day to day.”

Barrére might not think of Little Feat as legendary, but I’m certain fans who have been listening to the group’s bluesy, funky, boogieing, Southern’-rockin’, Dixieland, Cajun melodies over the decades would disagree. Two of the band’s more prominent fans are superstars Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, who have both told Barrére that Little Feat is one of their favorite groups.

The legend for me will always be Lowell George, who founded the group when he left Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention. It was Zappa himself who, upon hearing George’s now famous ballad “Willin’” (the truck driver’s anthem), urged him to form his own band. George followed Zappa’s advice and joined forces with bassist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Billy Payne, and drummer Richie Hayward. That first incarnation of Little Feat cut two albums, a self-titled LP in 1971 and Sailin’ Shoes in 1972.

Estrada left the band that year and was replaced by New Orleans musician Kenny Gradney. Guitarist/songwriter Barrére and percussionist Sam Clayton joined Little Feat and added their unmistakable funky sound to the music. This comes out loud and clear on 1973’s Dixie Chicken – the album that put Little Feat on the Billboard charts.

Little Feat had continued success with their albums Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974), The Last Record Album (1975), Time Loves a Hero (1977), Waiting for Columbus (a landmark double live album from 1978), and Down on the Farm (1979). Before the latter album was even released, however, George – who was heavily into drugs – met an untimely death while on tour in my hometown of Washington, D.C.

Lowell’s death left a huge hole in the band members’ lives – even though he had already departed Little Feat to strike out on his own. “When Lowell died, it was a loss,” Barrére said. “ It [his death] came at a very strange time – my first wife and I had just separated, and I was all alone in this big house. When I got the phone call [about George dying], I was numb for a week.”

Little Feat split up until 1988, when former band members Payne, Barrére, Hayward, Gradney, and Clayton realized how much they missed playing together. They re-formed, added vocalist/guitarist Craig Fuller and guitarist Fred Tackett to the mix, and continued to make those wonderfully eclectic compositions Little Feat is known for.

1990’s Representing the Mambo is one of my favorite albums recorded by the third (or is it fourth?) configuration of Little Feat. It’s an interesting mix of hard-driving, speeding Southern rock, slower, funkier Southern R&B, a hint of zydeco, and flat-out country/western.

In the album’s first track, “Texas Twister,” Barrére’s slightly nasal, sexy lead vocals bring to mind the image of a Texas bad boy out to make trouble. The whining lead guitars of Barrére and Tackett, and Hayward’s fast, steady drumbeat add to the song’s high-spirited tension.

“Representing the Mambo” features Payne’s raspy voice and the clear, sweet background vocals of Marilyn Martin and Sharon Celani. This track has a slightly Latin-jazz feel to it with a swinging, syncopated rhythm supplied by Hayward on drums, Clayton on percussion, and Gradney on bass. Payne’s boogie keyboard riffs tie it all together.

“Woman in Love” has that great swelling horn sound that Little Feat developed in its early days with George. This is where the listener can feel the influence of the Mississippi Delta in Feat’s music with lowdown, dirty (yet harmonious) vocals, screeching horns that build up in volume and intensity, a driving keyboard, and a funky R&B rhythm. Payne does a fast and mean boogie piano in the zydeco-influenced “Bad Gumbo,” and the beat is such that “my feet just can’t keep still” (to quote Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”).

Today, the pleasingly grainy vocals and feminine energy of Shaun Murphy have replaced Fuller’s sound, and she adds a different dimension to the constantly evolving band. Indeed, evolution is one of the band’s main tenets. When Little Feat got back together in ’88, it wanted to continue to be creative, composing musicians. “The first thing we said was that we’re not going to do this if we’re going to be an embarrassment to the band’s legacy,” said Barrére. Rather than rest on the laurels of its previous successes by playing the same songs forever, the band wanted to keep writing new music.

“It’s become very satisfying – we’ve entered the realm of being musicians and enjoying what we’re doing. Rule number one is there are no rules. We are free to create. That’s the only thing an artist can ask for. The reward is in the doing. That’s why we play live so much. ... For me it’s a spiritual experience.”

Asked if he’s looking forward to playing in the upcoming River Roots Live festival, Barrére replied that Little Feat has planned its set with lots of blues and R&B – “river music,” as he called it. “We’re a roots band anyway. I like to say we play ‘American’ music, every form: blues, R&B, rock and roll, and country.”

Barrére said that Little Feat will be playing songs from its newest original album – 2003’s Kickin’ It at the Barn, and plans to add some lesser-known songs to the set to give the audience some variety. “It’s nice to pull out rarities,” Barrére said. But he hastened to add that the group will play audience requests such as “Dixie Chicken.” “We can’t do a live show without playing ‘Dixie Chicken’ or it would be like a Frankenstein movie, with people running after us with pitchforks and torches.”

Little Feat’s most recent album release is a two-volume set called Barn Stormin’ Live, which features cuts from different venues of its 2004 tour. The band chose more obscure songs for this 22-song album, whose second disc will be released in September. Said Barrére, “There will be no ‘Dixie Chicken,’ no ‘Willin’’ or ‘Fat Man.’” He referred to those songs as “overexposed” on other Little Feat live albums.

When asked where he sees Little Feat in 10 years’ time, Barrére gasped and said, “We’ve probably got another five years in us. I just turned 57 and Sam Clayton and Ed Tackett are both turning 60. We’ll play as long as we can physically do it. Then when we sing ‘Old Folks’ Boogie,’ we’ll really mean it!”
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