Who-related posts aside, the most read of my most recent posts was the one about Lowell George and Little Feat, so I’ve dredged up another piece I wrote for Melody Maker in September 1974. I’d been to see the band at the Bottom Line in New York that week – the first time I ever saw them – but I can’t for the life of me remember where I interviewed Lowell. This would have been one of the last pieces I wrote from New York that year before I was summoned back to London for the last three months of 1974 and Michael Watts took over the NY watch while I kicked my heels back in London, deeply regretting that I was missing Johnny Beatle appearing on stage with Elton that November.
Anyway, Little Feat blew my mind at the Bottom Line and here’s what I reported in MM dated 28 September, 1974. Like a lot of my stuff from those days it sounds a bit starry-eyed now, but what the hell…
It would be difficult to count the number of musicians who have eulogised about Little Feat over the past year. This little known band from California, a six-piece rock outfit with subtle overtones and an obvious training in music, have just about become the musicians' band over the past 12 months.
Their albums have been steeped with critical praise but the group remain in the clubs and small concert halls, and have made little impression on the vast record-buying public.
Now it seems, we're gonna hear more from Little Feat. Warner Brothers, their record company, are pushing hard with their fourth and latest album, Feats Don't Fail Me Now. Perhaps the sudden success of Steely Dan, the nearest possible comparison I can think of, has brought all this about, but either way, few can doubt that Little Feat deserve to be heard by many more than are now aware of them.
Last week they appeared at New York's Bottom Line Club, packing the place on their second night when I caught up with them. Bob Dylan was in the audience, and Dylan doesn't turn out these days unless he's had it on good authority that the band in question are worth the problems with photographers and gawkers. The good authority could have been Randy Newman who, apparently, digs Little Feat too.
Little Feat are a very tight and complex rock band. Their music doesn't veer off into lengthy improvisations but instead hovers around multi-rhythmic structures and classy, zippy instrumental work. They're also just beginning to get into vocal harmonies too. The songs are a crisp, foot-tapping blend of r&b, soul and country, but the layers of background make it impossible to write them off as a catchy hook line band. All types of influences make up Little Feat — there's some of Zappa's wit and not a little of his perfection, and there's also a black influence to shake out the cobwebs. The bottom line, though, is that they are pretty much unchacterisable.
Little Feat revolve around Lowell George, guitarist, singer and songwriter, who has also turned his hand to production and engineering and spent time studying music from other countries. Lowell was a session player before he decided to form a band of his own. On the LA session circuit he worked with Nilsson, Carly Simon and Delaney & Bonnie, and took a stint as the Standells' lead singer. He also worked with Frank Zappa and became the first replacement Mother, staying as a touring and recording member of the band for nine months. In 1968, he formed Little Feat.
"I'd been a musician for seven or eight years before I got involved in starting Little Feat," he tells me. "Frank Zappa was actually one of the people that initiated it. I'd played in Frank's group for about nine months and he came up to me and suggested I formed my own group. It was a polite way of saying I was fired."
First to arrive in Little Feat was Bill Payne, the keyboard player, who was actually about to audition for Lowell's vacant role in the Mothers. Richard Hayward, from the just split Fraternity Of Man, came in as drummer and finally Roy Estrada defected from the Mothers to become Little Feat's bassist. It was Jimmy Carl Black, the Mothers' first drummer, who came up with the name: a reference to Lowell's small shoes.
"Mostly we wanted to play what I would call music with a stream of consciousness," says Lowell. "We wanted to explore all sorts of areas together and we just took it from there. I still really love country and western music, so there were, and still are, some country and western songs with twists to them.
"Actually the first cut on our first album was a demo that I made when I was still playing with the Mothers."
But Little Feat were two years on the road before they saw the inside of a recording studio as a band. Some of their early gigs, mostly in clubs, are recalled with terrifying memories by Lowell.
"We did any number of psychedelic dungeons across the country. Our first gig was at a club where there was a big notice above the stage that said 'No Fighting Allowed'. It appeared that the MC5 had started a riot there the previous week."
Little Feat had various offers from other record companies until they were approached by Russ Titelman who wanted to produce them for Warners. Lowell already knew Warners boss Mo Austin and the deal was signed.
It was their second album, though, that garnered the critical response from the elite of the rock industry, but instead of the anticipated stardom for the band, one member quit and it seemed for a while as if the whole group would disband. Roy Estrada packed up his bass and went to join Captain Beefheart. "He felt that the music that Beefheart was making was more open for his style of playing," says Lowell. "I really consider him one of the all-time great bass players, a real stylist who developed a whole fantastic approach to the instrument.
"I was thinking of going into producing, but then we ran into Kenny Gradney who's our bass player now. He was friends with Sam Clayton, a conga player who'd worked with Delaney & Bonnie for a couple of years. He showed up and said he had a partner who played congas and I thought... 'congas, I dunno,' but we offered him a place and he turned out OK."
The band also picked up an extra guitar player in Paul Barrere, a friend of Lowell's since high school. "I am much happier with the bigger group now," says Lowell. "And I really like having another guitar player. It means I can play lead instead of rhythm all the time, and I can concentrate on singing all the time.
"You know... I really admire someone like Paul McCartney who can play the bass and sings great at the same time. It means both sides of someone's brain are thinking about different activities and it's amazing that it can be done well."
The new Little Feat, augmented by this time to six, put out their third album Dixie Chicken which generated excitement at radio stations in the States, but not enough to pull it up into the charts. Then, earlier this year, there were further rumours that the band was splitting again. The rumours, says Lowell, were true but exaggerated: in the end, after a brief period apart soul-searching, they reformed to make their fourth album and are now back stronger than ever.
The good publicity scares Lowell. "Everybody's a little scared about it," he admits. "There comes to a line between stage A and stage B in this business, and when we read good reviews we get worried about how to make the next album better still. I'm sure a lot of other artists must be worried whether they can follow through."