How’s this for throwin’ down the gauntlet? I would put the six studio albums Little Feat recorded between 1971 and 1977 up against any other collection of records by an American band over that same period. And, if shipped off to that proverbial desert island with only a record player and one live album by a rock and roll band, I wouldn’t think twice before grabbing my copy of Little Feat’s 1978 masterpiece, Waiting for Columbus. Nearly twenty years after hearing it for the first time, I still play all or parts of Columbus every month or so. (If you want to check it out now, be sure to buy the expanded 2-CD set that was released in 2002.)
Little Feat was formed in 1969, when singer/songwriter/slide-guitar player Lowell George and bassist Roy Estrada left the Mothers of Invention and teamed up with drummer Ritchie Hayward and pianist Bill Payne. After a couple years and two albums together, Estrada left and the band reformed as a six-piece, adding guitarist Paul Barrere and percussionist Sam Clayton; Estrada was replaced by Kenny Gradney. When the lineup expanded, the band’s sound got dirtier and the pocket got deeper — less Southern California (George was from Hollywood), more New Orleans; less Flying Burrito Brothers or Captain Beefheart, more Dr. John or The Meters.
Along with one of the best rhythm sections ever assembled, it has George, Payne, and Barrere, all three of them talented singers and songwriters. I’ve singled out the first six albums, though, because those are the recordings that feature Lowell George at the top of his game. By 1976 or so, the drug problems that would kill him three years later were beginning to take their toll on him and the band. “Day at the Dog Races,” the fusion-inspired instrumental on Time Loves a Hero (1977), was supposedly written during one of George’s many missed rehearsals. And, in fact, on their commentary track for the Live at Rockpalast DVD, Payne and Barrere laugh when they see George leave the stage during the song, joking that it was his habit during that tour to use “Dog Races” as a break to get, um, re-medicated for the rest of the show.
As George became more and more distracted by drugs and by other projects (he produced The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street and recorded a fantastic solo album, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here), Payne and Barrere took over the bulk of the writing chores, and the band’s sound made a slight turn toward the jazz rock of the era. “Red Streamliner,” also from Time Loves a Hero, even features backing vocals by the then-ubiquitous Michael McDonald. I actually like the song and the sound of those records quite a lot, but the shift from Little Feat in 1971 to Hero just six years later is stark. The band reformed a decade after George’s death and have recorded and toured almost constantly since. In fact, they’re playing a free show here in Knoxville on Thursday night, though I won’t be able to see it.
For years, I’ve heard and read about Electrif Lycanthrope, an unofficial live release from 1974. Original vinyl copies still show up on the market from time to time, though at prohibitively steep prices. But now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet Archive, it’s right there, just waiting to be downloaded for free. God bless the internets!