Little Feat, big show
“I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah.
I’ve driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made;
driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.”
– From the Little Feat song “Willin’
Tonopah, Nev., residents must be perplexed by this piece of music trivia: Little Feat never had a top 40 single, not even Lowell George’s iconic lament from a truck driver who finds solace with “weed, whites and wine.”
Smack in the middle of Nevada between Reno and Las Vegas, Wikipedia notes, Tonopah’s “current fame may rest on the reference to it in the chorus of ‘Willin’.'”
Little Feat proved a song doesn’t have to be a radio smash to resonate the hearts of many.
“We’re very blessed that way,” said guitarist Paul Barrere. “For a band that’s never had a top 40 hit, we’ve managed to do pretty well for ourselves. Our fans are so loyal. That’s probably the strength of the band: the fan base.”
Barrere recalled an interaction with fans in Toivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.
“A couple came up to me and said, ‘We booked our honeymoon at Tonopah and Tehachapi.’ I said, ‘Why?’ There’s such a thing as Google now, you know. It was very strange. Here you are in the beautiful country and you go to Tonopah for a honeymoon? People do strange things behind lyrics in songs.”
Little Feat will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room. And while the band members live in Southern California, they won’t drive through Tonopah on the way to the show. They will fly to Reno.
Little Feat fans from Tahoe were buzzing about the band’s first show here in more than a decade.
“They come to town, we’ve got to see them; they are that kind of band,” Dave Smith said.
“They are one of the originators of the jam band era,” Eben Hood said. “And anyone who was with the Mothers of Invention (George) can’t be all bad, and I wasn’t even born when Frank Zappa was around.”
Little Feat reciprocates the loyalty in recent years by being more “fan friendly,” Barrere said. It even plays host to an annual beach bash in Jamaica.
“When the band started, we didn’t interact with fans as much,” Barrere said. “Now we have a grassroots organization. We have fans who do amazing work for us on their own, and we’ll do things like put songs on the Web for free. They’ve done as much to promote the band as any major label has.”
Little Feat’s fan base includes some of the industry’s greatest artists. Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Vince Herman, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Carly Simon, Stephen Bruton, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Buffett have covered, recorded or performed with the band.
Blues and rock guitarist Albert Cummings plays Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” on his recent live album, “Feel So Good.”
“That song just kind of came out one night,” Cummings said. “I grew up with Little Feat. I remember partying with my friends and cranking Little Feat. That song always stuck in my head and that night I just decided to go into ‘Dixie Chicken,’ and it was a real hit. Of course everybody knew the song. It was good crowd participation because they all love to sing along to it.”
Barrere appreciates Cummings’ homage.
“It’s a wonderful compliment,” he said. “To me, it validates the music. To have that respect is more than a compliment. It’s very humbling.”
Phish, at its annual Halloween concert in 2010, covered Little Feat’s entire live album, “Waiting for Columbus,” exposing the band, which was formed in 1969, to a new generation of fans. Barrere said Little Feat concertgoers range in age from 8 to 80. “Waiting for Columbus” was recorded at seven shows in 1977 in London and Washington, D.C. Little Feat was backed by the Tower of Power horn section and singers Pat Simmons and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers.
The tune “A Apolitical Blues” featured slide guitarist Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones.
In the small world, or make that Tiny Universe, department, Taylor’s first album with the Stones, “Sticky Fingers,” was covered last week in a show at Crystal Bay by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and guitarist Anders Osborne. Barrere and Osborne co-wrote two songs from Osborne’s album “Black Eye Galaxy,” which will be released May 1. The first single, “Black Tar,” was released for radio March 29.
“Anders invited me to New Orleans and we sat in his house for a couple of days and wrote a couple of songs,” Barrere said. “The first is a ballad, ‘Dancing in the Wind.’ I didn’t know if he would like it. I had the music but didn’t have the lyric. He had an idea for the start of the lyric, and it just flowed out of us. It was great. And ‘Black Tar’ is like the history of our lives. We won’t go into that.”
Speaking of writing songs, and we apologize for burying the big news: Little Feat has 10 originals and two covers ready for its first studio album in nine years. Barrere said a deal with a label is in the works and “Rooster Rag” is expected to be released at the end of June. He said some of those new songs will be performed at the Tahoe show.
Q What are the covers on the new album?
A I cover Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man Blues,” which has possibly the filthiest lyric ever written. And Sam Clayton’s (arrangement of the Willie Dixon song) “Mellow Down Easy.” It’s a cross between the Butterfield Blues Band and Little Walter’s version, and we got Kim Wilson to come on and play harmonica.
Q You’ve been called a pioneering jam band. When did you first hear the term “jam band?”
A Ten years ago, maybe more. Before that, it was just jazz. Improvising. It was strange to hear Little Feat was one of the originals like the Dead and the Allmans. I’m sure none of those bands I just mentioned or us ever thought of ourselves as being a jam band. We just like to play. And instead of just take taking the music and just replicating it note for note as it is on the record like a lot of major pop acts do, we tend to take the music and expand. Otherwise I couldn’t keep playing the songs for 40 years.
Q After Lowell George died, what inspired you to start the band again?
A What spurred that whole thing was the fun of playing the music we did. It was an impromptu jam session that we had with the remaining guys after Lowell had been gone for about six or seven years. There was a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. We used to use Bonnie (Raitt) and Jackson (Browne). One of the rooms was filled with Feat memorabilia and they dedicated it to Lowell. The owner called me up and asked if he could get the other guys and just have a jam. Everybody was in town at the same time, strangely enough. We did it and it spurred the interest again as to how much fun it is to play together and the music being so infectious. So that was really the impetus of putting the whole thing back together.
Q How many shows do you do these days?
A It was typically 120 a year, but in the last few years we’ve cut it down to 75 to 85.
Q Will you have a set list for the Tahoe show?
A I haven’t made it yet. Why, do you want to make a request?
Action: I wouldn’t be so presumptive to do such a thing. But I was wondering how flexible your shows are and if you go with the flow.
A: We do. But there are two songs we do practically every show, “Dixie Chicken” and “Willin,'” because they always want to hear those. Other than that, I try to keep it as fresh as possible, so from night to night we’re not playing the same set.
Q What else do you have coming up?
A I’m going down to New Orleans play with Anders, Fred Tackett and Bill Kreitzman from the Dead and Billy Iuso. We’re going to play at Jazz Fest at the old Howlin’ Wolf Club, which should be a hoot. We did the same thing last year.
Q Quite obviously, you are still having fun.
A For a musician the greatest reward is in the creating of the music. It’s not the paycheck. When you’re up there and you’re playing and it seems like five minutes and it’s actually been two hours, then you know you’re doing something right because you get carried away. You get taken by the moment. It’s as close to spirituality as you can possibly be. … It lifts you. It fills your heart. It fills your soul. It makes this whole trek through the planet worthwhile.
Band members and the year each joined
Bill Payne, keyboards, 1969
Paul Barrere, guitar, 1972
Kenny Gradney, bass, 1972
Sam Clayton, percussion, 1972
Fred Tackett, guitar, mandolin, trumpet, 1988
Gabe Ford, drums, 2009
(Singer-songwriter Lowell George died in 1979 at the age of 34)
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