Little Feat – Rad Gumbo/ The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971 to 1990 [AlbumList follows] – Warner Music/ Rhino Music 8122796057, 13-CD box set [2/25/14] ****1/2:
(Lowell George – guitars, flute, harmonica vocals; Bill Payne – piano, keyboards, accordion vocals; Richie Hayward – drums, percussion vocals; Roy Estrada – bass, vocals; Paul Barrere – guitars, vocals; Sam Clayton – percussion, vocals; Kenny Gradney – bass; Fred Tackett – acoustic guitar, mandolin; and many others including Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt; Michael McDonald; Ry Cooder; Bonnie Bramlett; Malcolm Cecil; David Lindley, Robben Ford; Jeff “Skunk” Baxter; Patrick Simmons; Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Tower Of Power)
With the release of their 1971 self-titled debut, it seemed Little Feat was destined for stardom. With a band that included fellow ex-Mothers of Invention Roy Estrada and Richie Hayward, and keyboardist extraordinaire Bill Payne, Lowell George created a musical recipe that transcended the rock genre, incorporating various musical styles. Subsequent albums expanded the context, adding funk-based blues and soulful jazz. Paul Barrere became a key contributor along with Payne. They were legendary among their peers and garnered an enthusiastic cult following. Little Feat was an electrifying live act, displaying keen musicianship and stage presence. George was charismatic and wrote some unforgettable songs (some with his band mates). As with most groups there was internal strife, but the band played on. In 1979, Lowell George passed away, and Little Feat did not release a new studio album until 1988. Let It Roll became their best-selling release. There would be other formations of Little Feat; they continue to perform and record to this day.
There are many highlights to the Rad Gumbo box set. The anthology includes all of the seminal Little Feat albums, and the music easily stands the test of time. Little Feat represents the apex of country rock in the early seventies. With a basic quartet (George, Payne, Estrada and Hayward), the songs paint a landscape of rogues and outlaw culture, “Truckstop Girl” epitomizes this sentiment with a jaunty, funky rhythm and a tale of a weary truck driver. George’s vocals are heart-wrenching and Payne’s melodious piano flourishes are uplifting. The anthem “Willin”’ is a song for the ages. This tale of a road-tested dope and people smuggler employs a similar arrangement, but with Ry Cooder on slide. (George sustained a questionable broken hand and would reprise the song on the next record so he could play slide). “Bride Of Jesus”, “Strawberry Flat” and “Hamburger Midnight” are gritty and expressive. The sophomore release, “Sailin’ Shoes” would be a Greatest Hits Volume One for any other band. A better version of “Willin’”, “Easy To Slip”, “Tripe Face Boogie”, “Trouble”, “Cold Cold Cold” and the title cut are bluesy and demonstrate a rich musical texture.
After adding Paul Barrere (guitar), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Sam Clayton (percussion), Little Feat expanded their sound and adopted a Southern vibe. Dixie Chicken was funky and syncopated. “Two Trains”, “Fool Yourself” (which introduced Fred Tackett),” “Fat Man In The Bathtub” and the unforgettable title cut (“If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb”) are all groove fests. But there are other interesting tracks. A slow bluesy cover of Allen Touissant”s “On Your Way Down” is atmospheric and “Roll Um Easy” is intensely emotional, aided by George’s lead vocal and slide guitar. Continuing the funk jamboree is Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. Another title could be Greatest Hits, Volume Two. “Rock And Roll Doctor”, “Spanish Moon” “The Fan” “Oh Atlanta” (one of Payne’s best compositions) and “The Fan” are dynamic and original. The Last Record Album is prophetic, representing the last “mostly collaborative effort” by the band. Time Loves A Hero features many songs by Payne and Barrere, including the fusion jazz “Red Streamliner” and “Day At The Dog Races”. Barrere adds a nice acoustic number, “Missin’ You.”
Most rock bands are judged by their live performances. (The Beatles are a rare exception.) Little Feat recorded their first live album, Waiting For Columbus in 1977. It is regarded as one of the greatest in the annals of rock history (with superior audio quality), along with Rock Of Ages by The Band and The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East. Backed by Tower of Power, the band delivered a muscular, high-energy show. Among the highlights is an extended version of “Dixie Chicken” that includes a phenomenal stride piano run by Payne. Additionally there is a New Orleans rollicking horn section and George and Barrere exchange spirited guitar licks. From the opening “F-E-A-T” chant, the crowd is amped and the band delivers. “Apolitical Blues” (featuring guest Mick Taylor on slide), “Fat Man In The Bathtub” and many other songs are revved up for the crowd. There is even a bit of “Don’t Bogart That Joint” (popularized in the movie Easy Rider by George’s former group, The Fraternity of Man). The Deluxe CD includes tracks featured on Hoy-Hoy (which has a version of “All That You Dream” by Linda Ronstadt performed at the benefit for George and Payne’s jazzy opus, “Gringo” and two colorful alternate takes of “Teenage Nervous Breakdown”). Fans will enjoy Outtakes From Hotcakes which offers more alternate takes and live jams.
There are two post-George albums, Let It Roll and Representing The Mambo with rootsy tunes like “Texas Twister” and “Rad Gumbo”. These initial attempts to reinvent the band were uneven, but still musically complex. Later editions of Little Feat (especially the sixteen year association with vocalist Shaun Murphy) would provide a re-born identity. With Little Feat, the music came first, not commercial viability. But that doesn’t explain their astonishing omission from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
This compilation is a tremendous bargain with thirteen CDs of great rock music at about five dollars a disc. The original album covers (many by surrealist Neon Park) have been included, though reduced in size. It is difficult to read the liner notes unless you’re very young or have a magnifying glass, but listening to the music is a pleasure. The overall acoustics of both the studio and live recordings are outstanding.
AlbumList:Little Feat (1971) Sailin’ Shoes (1972) Dixie Chicken (1973) Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974) The Last Record Album (1975) Time Loves A Hero (1977) Waiting For Columbus /Deluxe (1978) 2 Discs Live Recordings Down On The Farm (1979) Hoy–Hoy (1981) Let It Roll (1988) Representing The Mambo (1990) Outtakes From Hotcakes (2000)