Feats First – The Life & Music Of Lowell George (2015)

Cast: Lowell George;  Russ Titelman; Martin Kibbee; Barney Hoskyns; Warren Klein; Van Dyke Parks; Freebo; George Massenburg; and many others
Studio: Pride PGDVD179 (Distr. by MVD Ent. Group) [4/7/15]
Director: Jon Storey
Chapters: Introduction; Sunset Sound; The Factory; The Mayor Of Laurel Canyon; L.A Fraternity; Feat First; Sailing; Dixie Fried; Blue Seas; Dreaming; Dog Days; The End Of An Era
Video: 16×9, color and black & white
Audio: English PCM Stereo
Length: 131 minutes
Rating:      Audio: ***1/2    Video: ***  Overall: ***1/2

There have been many rock and roll bandleaders that have shaped this modern genre. Frank Zappa and Pete Townsend utilized orchestral themes to augment their music. But many bands drew on the roots-based forms, including blues, country, soul and gospel; very few redefined rock. Lowell George was one of these artists. With his formidable songwriting, instrumental virtuosity and studio acumen, his group Little Feat became legendary. Despite the lack of huge commercial success, Little Feat had a devoted cult following, including rock and roll loyalty. George’s innovative leadership pushed the band creatively. His dysfunctional personal life (and untimely death in 1979) cut short the legacy.

Pride Studios has released an unauthorized DVD documentary, Feats First The Life & Music Of Lowell George. The film chronicles the career of George as seen through the eyes of early collaborators and music critics. This Los Angeles native (he played flute in the Hollywood High School orchestra) is defined by his stints with The Factory, Frank Zappa and The Fraternity Of Man.  Factory bandmate and collaborative songwriter Martin Kibbee sheds light on George’s folk and blues rock early development, including the assembly of the original Little Feat lineup (Bill Payne/keyboards, Richie Hayward/drums and Roy Estrada/bass). There is not a lot of early footage, but a snippet of The Mothers Of Invention performing “King Kong” is a treat. Little Feat’s country rock template was similar to The Band. Bill Payne, a phenomenal keyboardist was a perfect complement to George’s visionary approach. This initial lineup recorded two albums, Little Feat and Sailin’ Shoes. Revered by critics, the sales were lethargic. But George’s songwriting (including co-writing “Sailin’ Shoes” with Van Dyke Parks) showcased the ample promise of this band.

Parks reflects on the music industry and its resistance toward the uncompromising Lowell George. George became a top-flight slide guitarist (opting to use a metal socket tool instead of a bottleneck). There is a terrific (albeit brief) performance of “China White” with the band. Then George tinkered with the group adding a replacement (Kenny Gradney) for the recently departed Estrada, and a conga player (Sam Clayton). The band now boasted two African-American players. Additionally Paul Barrere joined as a second guitarist. The band adopts a funky, urban New Orleans vibe and released Dixie Chicken to lukewarm sales. Little Feat was at a crossroads. They headed to Maryland, recording their breakthrough Feats Don’t Fail me Now. At the same time, George and engineer George Massenburg experimented with microphone placement. Massenburg provides fascinating, anecdotal information about various sessions.

Lowell George was in great demand as a session player and producer (Bonnie Raitt). He is seemingly everywhere and still the driving force in Little Feat (although Payne and Barrere assumed larger roles). Their time at the top was short-lived (they upstaged The Doobie Brothers on tour in England). Soon, the decline of the band unfolds with predictable drug abuse and band in-fighting. Payne is pursuing a Weather Report influence in long jams which is in direct conflict to George. Interestingly, their 1977 live album Waiting For Columbus was their biggest seller. It remains one of the premier live rock and roll albums.  George released a disappointing solo album, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here in 1979, and went on tour. Sadly he died in June of that year. The film ends with the expected pitch for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. There is a consensus that the lack of commercial success will prevent this well-deserved honor.

Feats FirstThe Life & Music Of Lowell George is extensive, but somewhat plodding. The droning voice-over slows the tempo of the film. There is incisive commentary from many close to the story. However, the lack of interviews with Little Feat band members reduces the impact of the story. The two-channel sound is good. All of the interviews are legible, as are the minimal performances. The video quality is adequate – certainly for this type of documentary.

–Robbie Gerson