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This year marks Little Feat’s Fiftieth (Golden) Anniversary and yes, they remain a golden and possibly the last example of what used to be the norm in American music: a fusion of a broad span of styles and genres into something utterly distinctive. Feat took California rock, funk, folk, jazz, country, rockabilly, and New Orleans swamp boogie and more, stirred it into a rich gumbo, and has been leading people in joyful dance ever since.
And it all began because in 1969 Frank Zappa was smart enough to fire Lowell George from the Mothers of Invention and tell him to start a band of his own. Lowell first settled on keyboard wizard Bill Payne, then added drummer Richie Hayward and bassist Roy Estrada (also a Zappa vet). They were quickly signed by Warner Bros., and began working on the first of 12 albums with that venerable company.
The name was part of the legend. A member of the Mothers happened to mention Lowell’s small feet to him “with an expletive,” said Paul Barrere. “Lowell deleted the expletive and the name was born with Feat instead of Feet, just like the Beatles. Neat, huh?”
The first album, Little Feat, featured the instant-classic tune “Willin’,” and the follow-up Sailin’ Shoes added “Easy to Slip,” “Trouble,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” “Cold Cold Cold” and the title track to their repertoire. Estrada departed, and the band signed up Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass), and the new guys are still around.
1973’s Dixie Chicken gave them the title track and “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” as good a blues as any rock band’s ever written. The hits kept coming: the title track from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974) and The Last Record Album (1975), which included “Rock and Roll Doctor,” “All That You Dream,” and “Oh, Atlanta” – another Southern-based winner (pretty good for a bunch of guys from L.A.!) In 1977, Time Loves a Hero delivered the classic title song, and their career to that point was summed up with the live Waiting for Columbus, truly one of the best live albums rock has ever heard.
Success is hard. It cost Feat their founder, Lowell George, who passed in 1979. And it cost them, temporarily, their joy; shortly after, they disbanded. In 1986, Barrere and Payne met up in a chance jam session, and found that they could still find that inspiration. They added Bob Dylan’s guitarist Fred Tackett to the lineup and toured for quite a while, but in 2010 the big C claimed Richie Hayward. They looked around and realized that Gabe Ford, Richie’s drum tech (and Robben’s nephew), fit right in. And that’s the Little Feat of today: Payne, Barrere, Tackett, Gradney, Clayton & Ford, for your listening pleasure.
In the early part of the new millennium, Feat started their own Hot Tomato Records and began to share their rich archives with their fans, producing the double CD collections of rarities Raw Tomatos and Ripe Tomatos from both fan and band tapes.
Join the Band, in many ways a summing up of all that preceded it, came in 2009, with re-recordings of their classic songs bringing together a vast slew of musical friends on vocals backed by Feat – Dave Matthews on “Fat Man,” Jimmy Buffett on “Champion of the World,” Emmylou Harris on “Sailin’ Shoes.” Bill Payne said it was about locating their influences. In some ways, it documents the way they’ve influenced the musicians who listen to them. And it certainly documents a musical career.
Their latest work is Rooster Rag, by critical consensus their best studio album in twenty years, featuring four songs co-written by Payne and the Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist Robert Hunter, four breakout songs by Fred Tackett, and a superb collaboration between Paul Barrere and the late Stephen Bruton,
Fifty years down the road, they’ve been up and they’ve been down and they know where they belong – standing or sitting behind their instruments, playing for you. And anything’s possible, because the end is not in sight.
For more information, go to www.littlefeat.com