If you casually read through the roller-coaster history of the band Little Feat, who’ll play a show this Wednesday at the Ridgefield Playhouse, you might think the music itself would be locked in an ongoing identity crisis lasting 40 years. You’d read about the occasional game-changing tragedy, seismic lineup change, whack-a-mole commercial triumph or surprising pop-culture reference, all of which happened.
The soundtrack to that history, however, tells a different tale, one of continuity and the preservation of their own traditions, recognizable in a rollicking vamp, syncopation or slide-guitar phrase. Call it their “Feat-ness.”
As a four-piece group in the early ’70s, Little Feat’s original lineup — guitarist Lowell George, pianist Bill Payne, bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Richie Hayward — put out two strong, if commercially disappointing, country-rock albums. Leading up to the third, 1973’s Dixie Chicken, Estrada left and was replaced by Kenny Gradney, and Little Feat took the opportunity to beef up their sound, adding guitarist Paul Barriere and percussionist Sam Clayton.
Wedged somewhere between George’s woo-woo blue-eyed ballads and innovative, mosaic song forms, barely contained jams and slippery funk and soul, Dixie Chicken was the (re)birth of the Little Feat sound, one they managed to carry through four more, mostly excellent albums with George (who passed away in 1979), beyond Steely Dan-ish yacht rock and proggy instrumentals. After George’s death, the surviving members (who, it’s been said, had been battling with him for creative control anyway), split up for nearly a decade, then reconvened in 1987 with ex-Pure Prairie League singer Craig Fuller, and struck gold with Let it Roll, their first effort out of the gate with the new lineup. They even had a number one mainstream rock song — “Hate to Lose Your Loving” — which would have been unthinkable in the George era. The saga continued from there: Shaun Murphy replaced Fuller in 1993, and Hayward passed away in 2010. Drum tech Gabe Ford took over his throne. Surviving members Payne, Barriere, Gradney, Clayton and guitarist Fred Tackett, who came on board with Fuller, soldier on.
Last week, Barriere spoke to me by phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. There’s much to be happy about; despite the loss of Hayward, the band is in top form. They released their 16th studio recording, Rooster Rag, on June 26. What they lack in terms of a singular, strong frontperson/singer — a George, Fuller or Murphy — they make up for in the vocal blend they achieve between Barriere, Payne and Tackett. Barriere likens it to the Band, one of Little Feat’s contemporaries in the early ’70s, “when they had Richard Manuel and Rick Danko and Levon Helm singing,” he said. “They were different but all distinguishable. ... It doesn’t put the onus on that one person. If you only have one vocalist, and that person gets laryngitis, people go home.” Rooster Rag is the band’s first album featuring new material in nine years; there weren’t piles of songs lying around driving the band to put them out.
“Our managers suggested that we get something new out there,” Barriere said. “At first we thought about recording a lot of old blues songs. In February 2011 we recorded ‘Candy Man Blues’ and ‘Mellow Down Easy.’ [Both made it onto Rooster Rag.] But we also did a few other songs like ‘Brickyard Blues’ and ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’,’ but also a couple of new originals.” The band returned to the road — they average 120 shows a year — and the new songs followed them. “We had to go on the road, and we started playing those songs. They became a little more refined.”
They chucked the blues album idea and did a regular Feat record. Payne was introduced to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who threw some lyrics his way; four of their collaborations are on the album. Barriere wrote songs with the late Stephen Bruton. The project was a go. “The thing that kept us from recording was that we had been doing a lot of touring,” Barriere said. “The last thing you wanted to do when you got off the road was think about music.” If there’s any inherent strangeness to the record, it’s that it is the first Little Feat music not to feature Hayward. “To tell you the truth, I miss his spirit more than his playing — his avant-garde nature,” Barriere said. Ford, he added, brings more focus. “Richie was such a great drummer and a lot like the rest of us in that he’d come up with things on the spot, those impromptu moments. But Gabe, coming from the musical background that he has... He’s young. What can I say? But I really miss Richie. His spirit was quite unique. He was an incredible cat and one of the most creative drummers in the world.”
Barriere’s had a hand in writing some of Little Feat’s more memorable songs. He wrote (or co-wrote) fan favorites “Skin It Back,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “All That You Dream,” “Time Loves a Hero,” “Old Folks Boogie” and “Missin’ You.” He wrote alongside George and Payne in the early days, and when the surviving members reunited in the late ’80s, he did even more. Lately Barriere’s been writing with New Orleans-based guitarist/songwriter Anders Osborne. “Certainly in the early days when I joined and I was a blues player, Lowell encouraged me to expand my horizons,” he said. “It just opened my eyes to all the different genres, and within that framework you can start combining genres.” He calls Little Feat an Americana band, or a roots band, “but the terms always seem to change over the decades... It just expanded my horizons as far as writing.” But songwriting is now, as always, a group effort. “Little Feat has always been a band, even back in the day. [George] co-wrote the first couple of records with Billy, and then we all started writing. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
They’re still underground, maybe more than ever, but not overlooked. There’s a memorable scene in the 2010 indie film Leaves of Grass: Edward Norton’s character, a stuffy professor, finds himself back home in Oklahoma. His pot-dealer brother (also Edward Norton) gets him super-baked, leads him into a blacklight poster-filled room, a shrine to mid-’70s stoner culture, to bed down for the night. His sleepytime music of choice is Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes.” “Remember?” the brother asks. That same year, Phish, monsters of the jam-band world Little Feat helped to create, covered Waiting For Columbus, a live double LP that came out in 1978, in its entirety, their musical Halloween “costume” of the year. (Previous years saw the Beatles’ White Album, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Loaded by the Velvet Underground.) The choice of Waiting for Columbus was made primarily to please guitarist Trey Anastasio; “We may have learned more from Little Feat than any other band,” he wrote in that evening’s Phishbill (their version of a Broadway Playbill). They’d been covering Little Feat’s “Time Loves a Hero” for decades, and on their most recent tour, they pulled out “Skin It Back,” from the 1974 Feats Don’t Fail Me Now record.
Forty years in, events blend together. Barriere has little trouble remembering the two worst moments he’s experienced with Little Feat. “The lowest moment for me was getting the phone call of Lowell’s passing, and not far behind that was Richie’s,” he said. Then there’s the time, not long after he joined the group, that the idea of further restructuring was floated, “after we had done Dixie Chicken, when someone suggested that it would be good to break up the band and to pair Lowell, Billy and Richie up with Don Everly and John Sebastian to make a supergroup,” Barriere said. “Fortunately for us, they didn’t do that. It was like being on the trading block on a professional sports team. But at the time it was so early in my Little Feat career that I would have bounced back.”
As far as high points, there are too many to count. “Nowadays the band is firing on all cylinders,” Barriere said. “We just did a show in London where we collectively had about 20 hours of sleep. But it was slamming.”
Little Feat, Aug. 15, 8 p.m., $55-$65, The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Road, Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org