Revinylization #44: Little Feat's evolution in two classic albums

Little Feat's beginning was a slow burn, bolstered by the faith of record company execs as the band found its groove. Once it found its, um, feat, the band thrived through deaths and other turmoil. In fact, they're still at it. This fall, according to Rhino Records, the band will be performing "on back-to-back nights ... at selected venues" the two albums that document the time they found their way: 1972's Sailin' Shoes and 1973's Dixie Chicken.

In conjunction with that 50th anniversary mini-tour, Rhino has issued deluxe remasters of both albums on 3 LPs or 2 CDs, with plenty of bonus material and a previously unissued live show with each album. On the LP sets, the two original albums were remastered by Bernie Grundman "from the flat master tapes," according to Steve Woolard, Rhino's head of A&R. Plating and pressing was done at Precision Record Pressing in Ontario, Canada. Rhino was kind enough to send me both the LP and CD sets so that I could compare the sound and presentation.

Sailin' Shoes was Feat's last stand as a quirky, four-man West Coast band, a darling of critics but hard to classify thus hard to market on radio and in the stores. Their self-titled debut was one of the best-reviewed records of 1971, yet it sold only 11,000 copies out of the gate. Warner Brothers producer Ted Templeman, who had already found success with the Doobie Brothers and would later strike mega-gold with Van Halen, had faith in guitarist/songwriter Lowell George and his bandmates and took the reins to produce the band's second outing.

Alas, Sailin' Shoes didn't light up the charts, either. But the band upped its musician game, showcasing George's superb, Delta-steeped slide guitar work, Bill Payne's creative piano, and Richie Hayward's free-spirited-yet-clock-steady drumming. The album contains some classic tunes that would feature prominently in the band's live rotation.

Unsatisfied at how "Willin'" had turned out on the first album, George took a second stab at it here and ended up with a classic piece of twisted Americana, covered by Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, and the Black Crowes and surely still sung most nights in some bar somewhere.

Sailin' Shoes sounds and feels like a great 1970s rock album, akin to early '70s Rolling Stones but tighter and at times faster. "Teenage Nervous Breakdown" is almost proto-punk. The new liner notes, by David Fricke, describe how George recorded the guitar and harmonica parts to "Cold Cold Cold" with his amp cranked up in a small closet to sound like early-'60s Chess studio and how he cut his vocals in a bathroom "so it would sound cold." "A Apolitical Blues" is a straight-up tribute to Howlin' Wolf and his Chess stablemates. The album's last song, "Texas Rose Cafe," includes a dream-sequence breakdown of jangly guitars, hyper drumming, and a cool B-3 organ riff.

The Sailin' Shoes bonus material is strong, including several fully formed Templeman-produced demos, an early version of the title track George played with Beach Boys lyricist Van Dyke Parks, some session outtakes that didn't make the album, and the mono single mix of "Easy to Slip." The best part is the live show, recorded August 28, 1971, at the Palladium in Los Angeles—a rare live capture of the original Little Feat at their full power.

Before Sailin' Shoes was even plated and pressed, bassist Roy Estrada left the band and George, Payne, and Hayward decided to try a bigger group with a different vibe. They brought in guitarist Paul Barrere, New Orleans–bred bassist Kenny Gradney, and percussionist Sam Clayton. This bigger band moved on to a sound that was funkier but still hard to pigeonhole.

The best way to grok the new sound is to listen to Dixie Chicken. Where Sailin' Shoes leans Chicago blues, Dixie Chicken leans bayou funk. The rhythms are quicker and busier, and Gradney is a different kind of bass player. Barrere's strong rhythm guitar frees George to concentrate on lead and slide.

This was Little Feat's breakthrough, not a fast burn to a gold record but a foundation on which they could grow, honing their chops with constant touring to culminate in the classic Waiting for Columbus. Soon after that, Lowell George was dead.

At times, Dixie Chicken sounds like what the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton were doing in 1973, but it's different in its variety and its down-and-dirty funk. The title track would become an FM-radio staple. George wrote most of the songs. His "Fat Man in the Bathtub," a tale of unrequited desire, became a live-show regular, as did "Two Trains."

The bonus material on Dixie Chicken isn't as interesting as that on Sailin' Shoes: a few rough demos and alternate mixes, plus a live show, recorded at Paul's Mall in Boston on April 1, 1973. This was an early version of the lock-tight Little Feat heard later, on Waiting for Columbus, still figuring stuff out.

A comparison of the LPs and CDs is interesting. Side 2 of Sailin' Shoes favors the LP for its bottom-end thickness and rock'n'roll swill, but the CD presents George's vocals more clearly, so take your pick. On Dixie Chicken, the CD sounds better than previous digital releases, but LP is better suited to swampy early '70s rock: downer and dirtier, less analytical, more soulful.

As for the ancillaries, the amply illustrated booklets and the amusing cover art by Neon Park (the late Martin Muller) work best as 12" × 12" artifacts; these middle-aged eyes balk at the tiny type in those 5" × 5" CD booklets, and these essays are worth reading.

The LP sets, which offer AAA remasters of the original albums plus a larger-scale presentation, are worth buying if you dig the music. And what's not to dig?

Glotz's picture

While some say that the product isn't up to the original vinyl standards (and that may be true as I haven't heard it), I found the Qobuz HD versions to sound very nice.

The extra content is great and sounds up to snuff of the rest of the main LP's. I hope I can afford those with all of the Tom Waits' remastered records hitting next month (and even more Neil Young archival stuff too).

Anton's picture

I can't imagine a world without that song.