“Well they say that time loves a hero/But only time will tell/If he`s real he`s a legend from heaven/If he ain`t he was sent here from hell...” Though Little Feat’s singer-songwriter-guitarist Lowell George wasn’t among the writers of the song “Time Loves a Hero” from the band’s 1977 album of the same name, the lyric might well describe him. Time has, indeed, told: almost 35 years after George’s death in June 1979, his legacy still resonates as does that of the band which he founded. Yet during its first lifetime, Little Feat never scored a hit record. One critic, in 1977, noted that the band was “still slogging around the country playing 3,000-seat arenas” despite praise from Led Zeppelin and The Marshall Tucker Band, not to mention The Rolling Stones. Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, Linda Ronstadt and Phish have all celebrated Little Feat. So why was Little Feat destined to remain a band’s band (as Buffett described them) or even a cult band rather than, say, a people’s band? One definitive answer will likely remain elusive. But the journey of discovery has never been as easily accessible as it is now, thanks to Rhino’s release of Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990.
This new 13-CD box set includes Little Feat’s first ten core albums, the 2002 expanded edition of the acclaimed 1978 live album Waiting for Columbus, and a bonus disc of rarities from the now out-of-print 2000 box set Hotcakes and Outtakes. It spans the entire original run of Feat (1971-1979) as well as the first two albums from the regrouped unit circa 1988-1990. Over the years, Feat endured a couple of key personnel changes. Bassist Roy Estrada, who founded the group with his fellow Mother of Invention alumnus Lowell George as well as drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Bill Payne, was featured on just two albums. The group briefly disbanded after those first two records, but once its members reconvened sans Estrada, the roster remained consistent from 1972-1979, with Hayward, Payne and George joined by bassist Kenny Gradney, guitarist Paul Barrere, and percussionist Sam Clayton. When Little Feat reformed in 1988, its surviving members Hayward, Payne, Barrere, Gradney and Clayton enlisted vocalist Craig Fuller and guitarist Fred Tackett to round out the line-up. But what remained the same was the group’s singular brand of good-time boogie.
Southern rock by way of southern California, Little Feat’s sound encompassed rhythm and blues, rock, country, jazz and funk, led by George’s distinctive slide guitar. Other groups incorporated many of those influences, and the band was sometimes lumped in with the SoCal rock of Jackson Browne, the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt. The latter was a friend of George’s, and no doubt fattened his bankbook when she included “Willin’” on her chart-topping 1975 album Heart Like a Wheel. Of course, his truckers’ anthem to the pleasures of “weeds, whites and wine” wasn’t likely to follow “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” to the top spots on the Billboard survey.
If George’s edgy, idiosyncratic, somewhat off-kilter lyrics didn’t augur for the band’s commercial fortunes, the group was lucky to have a committed label in the artist-friendly Warner Bros. Records. The development of, and changes to, Little Feat’s sound becomes apparent on Rad Gumbo. Showcasing its tight quartet of musicians and the songs of George and Payne (individually and collectively), the 1971 Russ Titelman-produced debut Little Feat established the band’s blue-collar country-rock cred thanks to tracks like “Truck Stop Girl,” “Hamburger Midnight,” “Strawberry Flats” and the first version of future signature song “Willin’.” Kirby Johnson’s orchestration also showed that the band was, um, willin’ to go out on a musical limb. The next year’s Sailin’ Shoes continued in the country-rock vein of Little Feat, but George’s amusingly surreal songwriting had become even stronger and more focused. Producer Ted Templeman smoothed out the rougher musical edges on key tracks like the shoulda-been-a-hit “Easy to Slip” and a definitively re-recorded “Willin’,” plus an assortment of ballads and blues. George’s title track attracted the attention of another Warner Bros. iconoclast, Van Dyke Parks, who included it on his steel drum-flecked calypso album Discover America.
When the “new” band premiered on 1973’s Dixie Chicken, it was imbued with the rollicking, soulful spirit of New Orleans. Now also in the producer’s chair, George continued as the dominant writer and lead vocalist in the band. He album tipped his hat to one of the Crescent City’s finest with a smoking cover of Allen Toussaint’s “On the Way Down,” but Little Feat was on the way up. The band’s musicianship was tighter than ever, allowing for jams and intricate interplay. Future full-time member Fred Tackett (also a close collaborator of Jimmy Webb) provided his acoustic guitar on the LP, with background vocals supplied by Bonnie Raitt, Gloria Jones and Bonnie Bramlett. The fiercely funky title track garnered cover versions from artists ranging from Jack Jones (yes, that Jack Jones) to, years later, Garth Brooks. Dixie Chicken remains Little Feat’s crowning achievement, but the band continued to hone the style of the album on future releases.
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Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Van Dyke Parks and the Tower of Power horn section all contributed to Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974) with more sublime southern-fried R&B as well as an odd closing medley of two songs recovered from Little Feat Mk. 1’s Sailin’ Shoes. But 1975’s The Last Record Album painted a less rosy picture of the band. Producer/frontman George only wrote two songs himself, co-writing a third; the slack was picked up by Barrere, Payne, Gradney and Hayward. With George’s varying addictions coming to a head, Time Loves a Hero marked the return of Ted Templeman to the fold. George recedes into the background on this LP, with the Payne/Barrere/Gradney title track the most memorable cut. The 6+-minute jazz-fusion workout of “Day at the Dog Races” was either an adventurous diversion or a sign that the band had gone completely off course. (Lowell George reportedly felt the latter.) When another studio album emerged in 1979 – Down on the Farm – Lowell George was dead at 34 years old. Following his death, the band pieced together the album, noting on its back cover that it was “the real last record album” and citing help from Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Fred Tackett, David Lindley, Robben Ford and Bonnie Raitt, among others. “This is from all of us to Lowell, straight from the heart. Good-bye friend, be free,” the inscription read. If Down on the Farm was steadfastly professional and fairly enjoyable, its patchwork quality and lesser material destined it to exist in the shadows of its more cohesive predecessors.
Happily, Rad Gumbo includes the more fitting farewell to the Lowell George-led Little Feat: 1978’s electrifying live album Waiting for Columbus. Recorded in London and Washington, DC in August 1977 and featuring the Tower of Power horns once again, Columbus stands as one of the band’s finest achievements. The jamming on the record makes it easy to see why Phish would find it attractive – “Dixie Chicken” hits the nine-minute mark - but the sheer chops of the players keeps it from being too indulgent. A 2000 reissue on Rhino restored the tracks dropped from the sprawling album’s original CD reissue, added seven previously unreleased tracks and three that had first appeared on the 1981 “odds and ends”-style compilation Hoy-Hoy! Altogether happily, Rhino has re-presented that complete 2-CD version in the box set. Hoy-Hoy!, too, has been included, and has some treasures among its demos, alternates and offbeat covers. Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons of Ted Templeman’s other charges, The Doobie Brothers, appear on the disc, too.
One song on Little Feat’s 1988 comeback Let It Roll declared that things were “Business as Usual.” Indeed, the song titles were warmly evocative of days past - “Cajun Girl,” “Hangin’ on to the Good Times,” “Changin’ Luck” – and Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Bob Seger all gathered to add vocals to the set produced by Bill Payne with Ronstadt’s collaborator George Massenburg. Craig Fuller of Pure Prairie League proved a worthy successor to Lowell George, co-writing all but two songs and handling most of the lead vocals. Impressively, the band didn’t succumb to eighties production mores, embracing a lean and powerful sound that recalled their best 1970s work. For good or ill, however, its follow-up Representing the Mambo – the final album included in Rad Gumbo and Little Feat’s last for WB – experimented with modern production circa 1989. Glossy, slick synthesizers took Little Feat rather too far out of the band’s natural element, but the album isn’t without its high points such as the rocking “Rad Gumbo” itself.
The discs in Rad Gumbo have been derived from the most recent remasters or sources available; no albums have been specifically remastered for the box set, and there are no remastering credits. The box does have one compelling, key bonus, however. Outtakes from Hotcakes is a new, 24-track compilation compiling most of the rare material on the 2000 box set. (The earliest material from George’s pre-Little Feat days in The Factory has been omitted.) With its demos, outtakes, live tracks and single versions, it’s a potent coda to the box set. As with other recent Rhino boxes including one from Yes (which premiered an expanded edition on American CD) and another from ZZ Top (restoring three otherwise-unavailable original album mixes), Rad Gumbo goes the extra mile for fans and collectors alike with this bonus disc.
Too bad, though, that Rhino was un-willin’ to include any kind of booklet with this release. Not only are there no liner notes new or old, but there’s very little information as to each album. Songwriters and producers are credited on the disc labels (beautifully recreated with the various Warner Bros. Records designs over the years) but musicians and other information and credits are wholly absent unless such information happened to be included on the recreated album artwork. Each disc is housed in a mini-LP replica sleeve, and the deluxe gatefolds have been retained on Sailin’ Shoes, Waiting for Columbus and Hoy-Hoy! Even a booklet with brief notes on each album and full credits would have gone a long way in placing the band’s legacy in context and making this set a definitive statement of its Warner Bros. career.
Little Feat continues to perform and record to this day, with 2012 bringing the very fine Rooster Rag from the band’s latest line-up. (Though Richie Hayward has sadly passed on, Payne, Barrere, Clayton, Gradney and Tackett are all still in the group.) The heart of the group – and the albums on which they built their sound and their reputation – can be found on the richly rewarding and refreshingly affordable Rad Gumbo. Gumbo typically has a base of strongly-flavored stock...and this set is one tasty, strongly flavored dish, indeed.