The most recent additions to my music library were again of the Filling in the Corners variety: adding more recordings by artists who I already have, but don’t have enough of.
The inspiration in this case was watching YouTube videos of “The Last Waltz,” the Band’s farewell concert, late last year, prepping for a blog post about the same. Somehow, in the midst of enjoying tunes by Bobby D.’s former backup band and their friends, the Internet site sidetracked me into a couple Little Feat videos.
Not that I complained much about the diversion. If you looked at the music library on my iPod, you’d get the impression that the Feat, if not at the top of the list, are nevertheless among my favorite acts. (I classify them as Third Gen rock and roll — the early greats (Holly, Little Richard, etc.) being the First, and the British Invasion and other ’60s acts, the Second.)
The band, though, actually formed in the very late ’60s. And the place of genesis for LittleFeat was, of all places, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Three of the original four members of Little Feat either played in, or auditioned for, the Mothers.
Guitarist Lowell George, who became the major creative force in the band, and bassist Roy Estrada were the former Mothers. Zappa fired George, who claimed it was because his song “Willin’” contained drug references; the Head Mother, despite the impression created by his music’s weirdness, frowned upon recreational drug use.
Although he pink-slipped George — who had made his performing debut at age six, playing harmonica on “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” — Zappa helped the band George formed in 1969 get its first recording contract. Little Feat recorded a couple albums that were critically well received, but not particularly successful commercially, before breaking up.
Estrada, who apparently hadn’t had enough of the avant-garde side of rock with the Mothers, joined Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. George and the other two original Feats reformed the group a year or so later, with a new bassist plus a second guitarist, George’s high school friend Paul Barrére, and a percussionist.
The band, which had been more straight-up rock in its original form, now changed directions, veering towards a funkier, New Orleans sound, as exhibited on the first album from the new lineup, “Dixie Chicken.” The title track from that LP is probably what first attracted me to the Feat.
The story of a drunken romance that starts in Memphis’s Commodore Hotel, progresses to marriage under the influence of “that low-down southern whiskey” and “the song she sang so well/If you'll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb/and we can walk together/down in Dixieland.” The object of the protagonist’s affections leaves him (for a musician, or course), but the refrain comes back to him in the last verse, back in the Commodore Hotel:
“Well it's been a year since she ran away/Yes that guitar player sure could play/She always liked to sing along/She's always handy with a song/Then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel/I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well/And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song/And all the boys there, at the bar, began to sign along.”
How could I resist a lyric that ends like that? As I listened on FM rock stations, I heard more that was just about as good: “Times Loves a Hero,” “Spanish Moon,” etc. After the CD age began, I picked up a copy of “Waiting for Columbus,” the Feat’s acclaimed live album, which lived up to its billing, except that I didn’t like the version of “Dixie Chicken” it contained.
So, at some point — back when there were such things still in existence — I cashed in some gift cards at a mall music store and got “Sailin' Shoes,” “Dixie Chicken” and “Time Loves a Hero.” Those combined quickly became one of my favorite iTunes shuffles: lots of variety in the music, catchy tunes and wry lyrics.
But I didn’t add any more of their LPs, for some reason, until after I saw those YouTube videos. Front and center in which, of course, was Lowell George, singing and playing his heart out (literally, as it turned out); watching him, I wondered what might have been.
For the multi-instrumentalist George, who wrote pretty much all of Little Feat’s best songs, didn’t make it out of the ’70s. He wasn’t quite the classic Rock and Roll Suicide, but he lived too fast and partied way too hard, dying in June 1979 from a heart attack, at the age of 34.
Little Feat had broken up a few months before, George clashing with other some of the other members over musical direction and control of the band. George had just released his first solo album and was touring in support of it when he died.
The band reformed nearly a decade after its 1979 dissolution, and has had some success over the following 25 years, touring, recording two No. 1 singles and releasing its last album only five years ago. Hayward died in 2010, and the two other remaining members of the classic lineup, Barrére and founding Feat Bill Payne, left after the most recent album was released.
The albums I downloaded were “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” from 1974, 1975’s “The Last Record Album” and “Down on the Farm,” which was in the works when the band broke up, and was completed after George’s death. Despite the success the band had after reforming in 1988, George’s absence (or maybe distraction) on the last LP from the classic lineup shows — it just doesn’t have the punch or inventiveness.
“Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” is a classic, with the driving title tune and the similarly fast-paced “Oh, Atlanta”; “Spanish Moon” caught my ear on “Waiting for Clolumbus.” “Rock & Roll Doctor” was one of the YouTube videos I watched that night last fall, but “Skin It Back,” fun and funky, was new to me. That album will definitely fit in with my first three Feat LPs.
“The Last Record Album” hasn’t quite grabbed me as much, although it does have the great combo of Linda Ronstadt and the Feat on the classic “All that You Dream” (one of the rare Feat songs not penned by George). Also, it’s got “Mercenary Territory,” another great George lyric (co-written with drummer Richie Hayward): “Cause I’m devoted for sure but my days are a blur/Well your nights turn into my mornings.”
All told, they were good additions to the library. And there’s still some potential corner-filling to do: the self-titled first Feat album, and some of the stuff from the post-George recordings that I’ve heard on sat radio sounds pretty good, too. I don’t think even the later, littler Feat will fail me.