LITTLE FEAT - Lowell George, the R&R Doctor

I saw Little Feat twice during my stay in America, once at the Bottom Line in New York and once at a big indoor arena in Washington DC where I stayed at the Watergate Hotel and stole some stationary on which to write a letter to my dad. Both times I came away with my mind appropriately blown as Little Feat were simply great, a really ‘American’ band with all the influences of American music – soul, blues, r&b, country, gospel and rock’n’roll – blended into a stew that was served up handsomely by Lowell George, their leader, singer, guitarist – probably the best slide player in the US – and songwriter. They sounded like no other band before or since and their albums have been on permanent rotation in my house, car and head ever since.
         I interviewed Lowell, the Rock’n’Roll Doctor himself, in Los Angeles during that Warner Brother trip I wrote about in another post and here, more or less word for word, is that interview as it was published in Melody Maker in January 1975.

LITTLE FEAT come to Europe with a high reputation to live up to. While the Doobie Brothers headline one of the two nights at each venue, Little Feat headline the other: a difficult task for a band who've never crossed the Atlantic before and whose records have yet to register real commercial success in this country.
British musicians arriving back from America have spoken reverently about Little Feat for two years now. Nor surprising, for the band have brought a technical expertise to rock and roll that's far ahead of just about all the boogie bands of their ilk.
Little Feat believe in complexities rather than the reliability of the classic Chuck Berry riffs cracked out in differing keys and at differing levels of volume. Prearranged changes of time signature and occasionally confusing rhythmic patterns display an obvious musicianship that's been hard to put across to many audiences more inclined to clap hands and stamp feet in time to a steady beat. Nevertheless they swing like no other band in American right now.
The Little Feat band is built up around Lowell George, a stocky, bearded Californian who began as a session guitarist for artists like Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon and Delaney Bramlett and moved into Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention before deciding to form a band of his own.
It was in 1969 that Lowell began recruiting his fellow Feats: Richard Hayward, ex-Fraternity of Man drummer, Roy Estrada, ex-bass player with the Mothers, and keyboard player Bill Payne.
This band released two albums, and appeared to be faltering in late '73 when Lowell became increasingly involved in production, but as '73 turned, the group released their third album with a new, enlarged line-up that saw Estrada out and a new bassist, Kenny Gradney. Also joining them for this second life were Paul Barrere on guitar and Sam Clayton on congas. Thus the line up remains today with four albums under their belt – all accorded massive critical acclaim – and a gradually growing audience in the United States.
"I've wanted to go to Europe as long as the group has been together," Lowell George tells me over tea and crumpets in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, "but we've had no excuse or reason to find ourselves there. When I was in school other folks would take off for Hawaii or the Orient or Europe and I could never get it together for some reason. I just stayed at home and learned to play the guitar instead of travelling.
"We've had a bunch of letters from England from people who seem to be interested in the band. Only the other day Richard got a letter from there from someone wanting to know how he tuned his drums. There is someone there who thinks we are selling out and he sends letters, unsigned, saying 'come on you guys, you can do better than that.'
"Dixie Chicken was the first album of ours that he didn't like, and he's sent a couple of letters recently accusing us of playing 'bugaloo teen-beat.' He must be some eccentric but I'd like to meet him. But I think it's real nice in that the letters are positive and they're real humorous in regard to the group getting more successful.
"I don't know what our audiences are going to be like, having never been there before even though we've received some feedback. We're topping the bill on one of the nights which is kinda unusual. Maybe we've received 100 letters from people all the while we've been going."
The band will be playing a longer set than they usually play on US tours and will include material from all their albums, rather than recent material from Feats Don't Fail Me Now. "We'll do 'Truck Stop Girl', and 'Roll 'Em Easy' and 'A Political Blues' as that's a very American subject now.
"The thing about our show is that we're somewhat inflexible. To me we have to establish contact with folks and get them interested in what we do. I don't know of any theatrics or any really simple way to do that other than music. I can't fathom how to include smoke machines or laser beams or any of that business in our show. Basically it's music so we have to strike the right chords in the audiences we are playing to.
"I know with some audiences we have played to, it's been fear and loathing or death and destruction because they've wanted a J. Geils boogie band. I guess that's a problem for our agent or manager to figure and I try to stay out of that business as much as I can.
"I think there are maybe times when we do get too complex for an audience. I don't mean to, but that's the way we play and that's what keeps our interest. To us it's a lot more than just a job in that it's something we enjoy doing, playing something for a month on the road without hating it.
"I have no doubt that the mimicry that a group can get into, like trying to sound as if you're feeling good, is always forced. I try to get into that but I can't. It's really hard and it never makes it. I always lose contact with everybody, both on the stage and in the audience.
"Everybody conducts the band at some moment. There are times when everyone has a chance to hold things together... Bill conducts some parts, Paul does some parts and Richard takes over on occasions. Everybody has a moment when the thread of consciousness of the band is being held together by that person. That's a very interesting way to do it. In terms of electricity I try to be a conductor of any particular moment and make each song as effective as it can be. Doing that for up to two hours at a time is hard and some nights it's a lot harder than other nights."
Sound systems, says Lowell, have always been a problem for Little Feat – especially when they're obliged to hire one they've never used before. But recently they toured with Traffic and Lowell is full of admiration – not only for Steve Winwood's musical capabilities, but for the system they were using on that tour.
Mentioning no names, Lowell is critical of those English bands that lift old American blues music and use it intact without any alterations. "That gets me going," he says. "It's nice when Howlin' Wolf gets a royalty check, but when he doesn't get a check for what is a real rip-off, or a change of lyrics, then that gets me going.
"He's an old guy and he needs the money, and there are too many bands doing that. At the other end of the scale there's artists like Steve Winwood and he's fantastic... an amazing singer and a tasteful, interesting keyboard player who thinks on multiple levels.
"He's co-ordinated, like the drummer in the Eagles who sings and plays. One side of his brain governs his voice while he's singing and the other side of his brain governs his hands and feet playing his drums. They're totally separate entities.

"England I've always thought of as being an interesting place because various types of new music evolve there and get together in an unusual way. Getting there myself will be really something."


Anonymous said...

I have a bootleg (Beak Positive) recorded in England on that first English tour, and it is Phenomenal....for my money, the best Little feat That I have heard, and I love everything they did...

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot...avesome.
Cheers Danny.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thank you. This post has had a lot of views which reinforces my view that LF we're one of America's greatest bands. I did see the post-Lowell group in the 80s in London but they weren't the same, still better than most though. And my thanks to whoever signposted my blog on a Lowell G Facebook page which no doubt accounts for all the hits. He was a lovely guy too, genuinely modest and super nice,and I write about him elsewhere on the site on a post called My Busiest Week Ever on Melody Maker, in the MM category.

Anonymous said...

Saw LF in Manchester Free Trade Hall in the 70's. It was probably that first tour. DEFINITELY musician's musicians, I was sat behind Godley and Creme from 10cc. The Feat were fantastic. I next saw them in 2012 at Gateshead Sage. They were brilliant but missing Lowell George's cool. With Lowell and Richie both gone now the heart and soul is gone from the band. They are still my favouite all time band.

steve woodhead said...

Thanks for that, Chris. Inspired me to listen to Waiting for Columbus again, which I'm doing right now.