Little Feat: Little Feat Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971 to 1990

Carlo Wolff By

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Little Feat: Little Feat Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971 to 1990
The first time you hear the Los Angeles band Little Feat, you might think it springs from the same southern loam as the Allman Brothers Band or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Listen a little deeper and you'll hear something more off-kilter and easily as distinctive, whether it's the complicated rhythm supplied by Richie Hayward, Kenny Gradney, Sam Clayton and Bill Payne or the weird, frequently surreal lyrics of Lowell George, the band's founder and guiding spirit during what many consider its best years.

Little Feat, a definitively mercurial group, never achieved the success it deserved, and leadership issues setting George against Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere dogged it, underlining the stylistic conflicts that also paradoxically gave it such dynamic, creative tension.

That tension animates Rad Gumbo, Warner Bros. latest attempt to capitalize on a band whose reputation has swelled over time.

Little Feat is one of the great American bands, easily as adventurous as its equally cool contemporary, Steely Dan, and routinely more soulful. Get a Feat tune in your head and the earworm sticks. That's why "Willin,'" arguably Feat's most famous tune, became a hit for fan and sometime backing vocalist Linda Ronstadt and why tunes like the rumbling, friendly "Fat Man in the Bathtub" and the mordant, kind "Old Folks Boogie" remain timeless.

This box, despite some problems, covers the band's most commercial span (it wasn't commercial enough), 19 years during which Little Feat spawned nine studio albums and two live ones; the last disc in this clamshell collection is an illuminating one, consisting of live tracks and demos recycled from an earlier Warner Bros. anthology.

Let's dispose of the problems first.

Granted, you get the cream of the Little Feat crop when you buy this bargain box (it lists for $74.95 but is available for less than $65) and it looks sharp, replicating the original LPs with mini-discs (including several gatefolds, adding to the period feel) and reminding the longtime observer how well the Neon Park art went with the music.

But these discs haven't been remastered, there are no liner notes, and the packaging of the Waiting for Columbus double CD is unforgiving, making it almost impossible to liberate the discs from the jacket. In addition, making these discs mini also renders the type on them unreadably small; you'd think Rhino could throw in a magnifying glass.

This is a box designed for (a) the completist and/or (b) fan who knows Little Feat's checkered history. As such, it's valuable, supplanting and expanding on a five-CD bargain box Rhino released in its Original Album Series four years ago. This also might be the last compact disc iteration of key Feat catalogue. If you're not a fan of downloads, you might want to grab it.

(You also might want to pick up Ben Fong-Torres' Willin', a biography of Little Feat from Da Capo Press. It's a highly readable account tracking Feat from its origins— George and some proto-Feats played behind the GTOs, a band of groupies that recorded on Frank Zappa's Straight label—to its current status, still performing and recording.)

The box's depth allows the listener to track Feat's progression from its start as a warped blues band in the shadow of Zappa to its slick, big-label swan songs, the more commercial Let It Roll (its pretty resurrection after the mysterious, likely drug-induced heart attack that killed George in 1979), and Representing the Mambo, its final Warner disc.

Some say the band never recovered after George's death, but Little Feat's last two, and perhaps most generic, Warner albums actually sold better than earlier ones. Still, it's the band's early years that yielded its classics: the truck driver anthem "Willin,'" the bluesy, extraterrestrial "Sailin' Shoes," the rueful, groovy "Easy To Slip," the rocking "Fat Man in the Bathtub," the polished pop of "All That You Dream," the snaky "Oh Atlanta," the commanding "Rock and Roll Doctor"—the list goes on.

Not only are these 1970s talismans documented on the band's increasingly polished studio albums, various versions surface on the remarkable live album Waiting for Columbus and its more eccentric and diverse (some might say perverse) descendant, Outtakes from Hotcakes, Warner Bros.' streamlined distillation of Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat , a four-CD 2000 box long out of print (wish Warner had reissued its 80-page booklet).

Live, the band was remarkable. This writer fondly recalls two nights at Pall's Mall, a long-defunct, legendary club on Boylston Street in Boston's Copley Square that shared space with the Jazz Workshop. It was high summer 1974, with Feat touring behind Feats Don't Fail Me Now, an LP as troubled and ambivalent and electrifying as its Neon Park cover art of a stormy night, pairing Marilyn Monroe and George Washington in the front seat of a snazzy 1948 Lincoln Continental.

Feat was fabulous those two sultry August evenings. It rocked the joint, propelling people to dance, on the floor and even on the tables. Feat may have been at its height then; following the Feats album (the title tune is spelled various ways on its many iterations in this box), the band began to diffuse, Payne and Barrere shouldering more and more of the songwriting burden even as George, a man of uncontrollable appetites, was working, endlessly and expensively, on his solo album (Thanks, I'll Eat It Here—the working title for Sailin' Shoes— finally came out in 1979, mere months before George's death. It sounds tentative; only four tracks were by George, and despite stellar backing from the likes of George inamoratas Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones and Feat-to- be guitarist Fred Tackett, it feels bloated).

Despite its ups and downs, Little Feat, which soldiers on, remains, like fellow Angelenos Los Lobos, one of the great vernacular bands. Sounding like the bastard spawn of The Band and the Allman Brothers, it covered a remarkable stylistic range, its template a unique amalgam of country, blues and jazz. Songs like guitarist Barrere's "Hi Roller" (from the loose 1977 disc Time Loves a Hero) or "Straight From the Heart," a gorgeous, yearning tune Payne and George wrote for 1979's stellar Down on the Farm, George's last Feat recording, (a) should have been hits and (b) find Feat comfortable and authoritative no matter the musical terrain.

Punched by the Tower of Power horns, as is most of the spectacular Waiting for Columbus, "Hi Roller" is a cruiser, its inflections signaling a shift in the band's direction from George's rock orientation to Payne's jazzier, more improvisational approach. "Straight From the Heart," meanwhile, is simply gorgeous; like "One Clear Moment" and "Listen to Your Heart," tracks from Let It Roll, it should have been far more than a contender. Range, daring and the kind of friction that at best leads to great art fueled Little Feat, these albums show. Despite unevenness— Sailin' Shoes, Dixie Chicken, Down on the Farm, Feats Don't Fail Me Now and Waiting for Columbus are the strongest albums—each disc has its pleasures and surprises, attesting to the durability and drive of a band you can't get out of your head. And don't want to.

Track Listing

Track Listing: Little Feat (1971): Snakes on Everything; Strawberry Flats; Truck Stop Girl; Brides of Jesus; Willin’; Hamburger Midnight; Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years; Crack in Your Door; I’ve Been the One; Takin’ My Time; Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie. Sailing Shoes (1972): Easy To Slip; Cold, Cold, Cold; Trouble; Tripe Face Boogie; Willin’; A Apolitical Blues; Sailin’ Shoes; Teenage Nervous Breakdown; Got No Shadow; Cat Fever; Texas Rose Café. Dixie Chicken (1973): Dixie Chicken; Two Trains; Roll Um Easy; On Your Way Down; Kiss It Off; Fool Yourself; Walkin’ All Night; Fat Man in the Bathtub; Juliette; Lafayette Railroad. Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974): Rock and Roll Doctor; Oh Atlanta; Skin It Back; Down the Road; Spanish Moon; Feets Don’t Fail Me Now; The Fan. The Last Record Album (1975): Romance Dance; All That You Dream; Long Distance Love; Day or Night; One Love Stand; Down Below the Borderline; Somebody’s Leavin’; Mercenary Territory. Time Loves a Hero (1977): Hi Roller; Time Loves a Hero; Rocket in My Pocket; Day at the Dog Races; Old Folks Boogie; Red Streamliner; New Delhi Freight Train; Keepin’ Up With the Joneses; Missin’ You. Waiting for Columbus (live, 1978): Join the Band; Fat Man in the Bathtub; All That You Dream; Oh Atlanta; Old Folks’ Boogie; Dixie Chicken; Tripe Face Boogie; Rocket In My Pocket; Time Loves A Hero; Day Or Night; Mercenary Territory; Spanish Moon; Willin’; Don’t Bogart That Joint; Apolitical Blues; Sailin’ Shoes; Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. Down on the Farm (1979): Down On The Farm; Six Feet of Snow; Perfect Imperfection; Kokomo; Be One Now; Straight From The Heart; Front Page News; Wake Up Dreaming; Feel the Groove. Hoy-Hoy (live, 1981): Rocket In My Pocket; Rock And Roll Doctor; Skin It Back; Easy To Slip; Red Streamliner; Lonesome Whistle; Front Page News; The Fan; Forty-Four Blues; Teenage Nervous Breakdown; Teenage Nervous Breakdown; Framed; Strawberry Flats; Gringo; Over The Edge; Two Trains; China White; All That You Dream; Feets Don’t Fail Me Now. Let It Roll (1988): Hate To Lose Your Lovin’; One Clear Moment; Cajun Girl; Hangin’ on to the Good Times; Listen To Your Heart; Let It Roll; Long Time Till I Get Over You; Business as Usual; Changin’ Luck; Voices on the Wind. Representing the Mambo (1989): Texas Twister; Daily Grind; Representing The Mambo; Woman in Love; Rad Gumbo; Teenage Warrior; That’s Her, She’s Mine; Feelin’s All Gone; Those Feat’ll Steer Ya Wrong Sometimes; The Ingenue; Silver Screen. Outtakes from Hotcakes (live, 2014): Jazz Thing in 10; Rat Faced Dog; Doglines; Wait Till the Shit Hits the Fan; Easy To Fall (Easy To Slip); Texas Rose Café; Doriville; Boogie (Tripe Face Boogie); Two Trains; Roto/Tone; Ace in the Hole (Hi Roller); Eldorado Slim; Feats Don’t Fail Me Now; Brickyard Blues; All That You Dream; Spanish Moon; Down Below the Borderline; Rockin’ Shoes I & II; Front Page News; High Roller; All That You Dream; Roll ‘Em Easy; Boogie Wigwam (short jazz piece); Teenage Nervous Breakdown.


Personnel: The original lineup was Roy Estrada, bass and backing vocals; Lowell George, vocals, guitar, harmonica; Richie Hayward, drums, backing vocals; and Bill Payne, vocals, keyboards. This was the lineup on the band’s eponymous debut of 1971 and its 1972 follow-up, Sailin’ Shoes. The most famous lineup preserved George, Hayward and Payne, shedding Estrada and adding Paul Barrere, vocals, guitar; Sam Clayton, congas, vocals, percussion; and bassist Kenny Gradney. This was the backbone of the albums from Dixie Chicken through Hoy-Hoy. Let It Roll of 1988, the band’s first studio album without founder George, featured former Pure Prairie League singer Craig Fuller, who also led the band on 1990’s Representing the Mambo, its Warner Brothers finale. Musicians who helped the band over the years – particularly on the post-George albums – include singers Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger and Shaun Murphy (who would be its lead singer for a few years in the early ’90s) and multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett, who’s still in the group. Others who helped out include singers such as one-time Doobie Brother Michael McDonald and Valerie Carter, Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker and the literate, eccentric Van Dyke Parks, who recorded Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” on Discover America, his weird 1972 precursor of what could come to be known as Americana.

Album information

Title: Little Feat Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971 to 1990 | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Warner Bros.

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