Recording of December 2000: Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat
Warner Archives/Rhino R2 79912 (4 CDs). 1970-2000. Russ Titelman, Ted Templeman, Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Erik Jacobsen, George Massenburg, Bill Payne, Paul Barrère, Bill Wray, Ed Cherney, Frank Zappa, Michael O'Bryant, Richard Moore, orig. prods.; Gary Peterson, Bill Payne, Paul Barrère, reissue prods.; Bill Inglot, reissue sound. AAD. TT: 5:13:48
Little Feat: Chinese Work Songs
CMC International 86295-2 (HDCD). 2000. Bill Payne, Paul Barrère, prods.; Nathaniel Kunkel, eng. DDD. TT: 61:30
Little Feat: Rockpalast Live
Pioneer Artists PA10507D (DVD-V). 2000. Gary Katz, Edward Secard, prods.; Matt Friedman, DVD post-prod.; David Grumme, DVD prod. AAD, Dolby Digital 5.1 (plus commentary track, original mono soundtrack). TT: 74:00
Lady in a turban, in a cocaine tree,
Does that dance so rhyth-mic-al-ly...
It is said than when aspiring jazz saxophonists first hear a Charlie Parker recording, many quietly put away their instruments, never to touch them again. That was almost my fate as a rock bass player more than a quarter century ago, when I first heard 1972's "Sailin' Shoes," the song that begins with the enigmatic lyric above. In one deceptively simple, short piece of boogie, the first incarnation of Little Feat (with ex-Mother Roy Estrada on bass) expressed more rhythmic subtlety, more harmonic complexity, more instrumental interplay, and more lyrical sophistication than any rock band I had heard, from then till now.
Looking back at that period through the medium of Hotcakes & Outtakes, it comes as a surprise to be reminded that Little Feat put out only nine albums in 11 years, two by the Mk.1 band, seven after Kenny Gradney replaced Estrada and percussionist Sam Clayton and second guitarist Paul Barrère joined the band. The first two discs of this set document those nine albums, touching both the highlights—"Willin'," of course (Sailin' Shoes version), "Easy to Slip," Billy Payne's "hit song" "Oh Atlanta," "Dixie Chicken," "Fat Man in the Bathtub" in both studio and live versions—and overlooked gems, such as the poignant "20 Million Things to Do" and "Roll Um Easy," with its vastly empty arrangement for acoustic and slide guitars.
Listening to the set from start to finish, I was struck by the vocal strengths of not just George, but also of Barrère and Payne. The virtuosity of the playing constantly astounds: Richie Hayward's inventive drumming, Payne's superb left-hand piano punctuation and barrel-housing right hand, Barrère's always appropriate guitar riffing, Gradney's right-notes-in-the-right-place bass lines. But with the exception of "Day at the Dog Races"—the warmed-over, sub-Herbie Hancockish jam written by the band (according to Hotcakes' liner notes) during one of many rehearsals they spent waiting for George to show—that virtuosity is subservient to the musical whole. As it should be but rarely is, where instead of flurries of notes, some of which are the right ones, the musicians play just the right notes at just the right time.
The other thing made obvious by the set is how consistently fine Little Feat's recorded sound was. Yes, they benefited for many years from their relationship with the talented George Massenburg, but even the finest engineer can't create space when the musicians haven't left any between the notes.
The five surviving Feat reformed in 1988, adding Craig Fuller on vocals and long-time George associate Fred Tackett on guitars. I saw this Mk.3 band on their debut tour, and a fine night's musicmaking it was; the two new members did an excellent job of replacing Lowell's role, if not his spirit. Two albums came out to good reviews, but the Feat left Warners after their longtime label failed to support 1990's Representing the Mambo to the extent the band felt necessary. Fuller then left and was replaced, to everyone's surprise, by a woman, Shaun Murphy.
Disc 3 of Hotcakes summarizes the eight albums Feat Mk.3 put out in 12 years. It's all good stuff—worthy, even—but at the risk of stating the obvious, it was Lowell George who transformed the merely superb into superstardom.
Disc 4 of Hotcakes gathers together pre-Feat Lowell George stuff, demos, some alternate takes. If you're new to Little Feat, don't listen to it until you've absorbed discs 1-3. If you're already a Feat fan, you don't need me to tell you about disc 4's significance...but the various musical and personal connections with Captain Beefheart did come as a surprise.
In these postmodern days of rock stagnation and fragmentation, Chinese Work Songs, recorded straight to hard disk and with an HDCD transfer ensuring a clean, well-balanced mix, would be a fine album from any other band. The songs are an eclectic, intelligently performed batch—I particularly liked "Just Another Sunday," with its King Sunny Ade-tinged intro, and the slow-drag reading of Dylan's "It Takes a Train to Laugh..." (though I really didn't see the need for an excursion through "Rag Mama Rag")—but I respected this latest album by Feats Mk.3 more than I was excited by it.
Even if the memories of the only Lowell George-led Feats gig I saw, in London in 1976, weren't still vivid, they would have had life breathed into them by the Rockpalast Live DVD, taped for German TV in 1977. The sound is a little haphazard—Hayward's vocal mike is about 6dB higher than George's—and George's disappearance from the stage during "Day at the Dog Races" is telling. But the band cooks bigtime. The highlight is the bonus "Cold, Cold, Cold," apparently recorded during the concert's soundcheck, where George's picking and sliding on his blond Stratocaster catches fire more than it does in the formal set.
As excellent a band as the reformed Feat has proved to be, the Mk.2 band is the one to remember. I'll give the final word to Lowell George and his songwriting partner Martin Kibbee, from "Rock and Roll Doctor":
If you like country with a boogie beat
He's the man to meet.
If you like the sound of shufflin' feet,
He can't be beat.
Mr. George and his band couldn't be beat.—John Atkinson