October 16, 2008

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Rock and roll legends still ready to rock
Little Feat at Tupelo Music Hall

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

In his liner notes for Join the Band, Little Feat’s new, multi-collaboration CD, keyboardist and founding member Bill Payne describes the band’s desire to acknowledge its sources of inspiration. With guest artists like Jimmy Buffet, Dave Matthews, Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Chris Robinson, there’s a wide diversity of sound represented.

“I think the uniqueness of this album is that it’s not a tribute album,” Payne said. “It’s a celebration of our influences viewed through the prism of musicianship.”Little Feat will perform two shows on Sunday, Oct. 19, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. at The Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry to support their new release.

In their long and sometimes tumultuous career, Little Feat have taken rock, funk, folk, jazz, country, rockabilly and New Orleans swamp boogie and cultivated a loyal following, earning the respect of their fellow musicians in the process.

Like many bands, Little Feat formed purely by accident. In 1969, Frank Zappa fired founding Feat member Lowell George from the Mothers of Invention and told George to start a band of his own. George took that advice, and soon recruited keyboardist Bill Payne, then added drummer Richie Hayward and bassist Roy Estrada.

Their first album, Little Feat, featured the instant-classic tune “Willin’.” Estrada departed, and the band signed up Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton and Kenny Gradney, who are still with the band today.  In 1979, Lowell George passed away while the group was working on Down on the Farm. Shortly after, the group disbanded. In 1986, Barrere and Payne met up in a chance jam session, and found that they could still find inspiration together as a group. The reinvented band hit the road again, and they’ve been at it ever since.

“What has kept us together as a band for so long is the music,” Payne said. “You’d have to play in about 10 different bands to play the breadth of music we play. You have bands like Bruce Springsteen’s and Bob Seger’s, where it’s mostly one guy out there doing his thing. We don’t have one vocalist, but Paul and I are the leaders — realistically, you can’t have a democracy as a band all the time. If you did, you’d just constantly be rowing in a circle.”

Feat also started their own music label, Hot Tomato Records, which gave the musicians the freedom to deliver solo work, first with Fred Tackett’s In a Town Like This, and then with Bill Payne’s Cielo Norte.

“I think exploring individually as a musician is essential,” Payne said. “You are able to bring in things from the outside, and in bringing those things back home you grow as a band — it broadens your horizons and you learn what connects us and separates us.”

 Now, with almost 30 albums to their credit, the band moves into another phase of its career with Join The Band, and though a collaboration album isn’t unheard of for many bands, it took a while for Little Feat’s own vision to gel.

“Doing a project that involved guest artists wasn’t really a new idea,” Payne said. “I actually tracked it for about nine years. It really began to click when I worked with Jimmy Buffet in 2004. We had talked about the idea for a while, but he really helped to bring it together. It required hard work and patience — the patience part of it I really had to learn to embrace.”

The band felt fortunate to be able to gather a wish list of musicians that included some of the biggest names in pop, rock and country.

“Most of the artists were people we had worked with,” Payne said. “Dave Matthews was someone we had always wanted to work with, and with Brooks & Dunn, we didn’t even know we wanted to work with them, but they were just great. It was an embarrassment of riches for us.”

The album not only allowed these guests to join the Little Feat band, but afforded the band the opportunity to go in new directions.

“It was really a community of players,” Payne said. “We all share the common language of music. There are always collaborative things to explore — I’d like to continue this conversation with other artists in the future.”

It’s a future with no real end in sight for Little Feat, who show no signs of stopping or slowing down.

“We used to have a 10-year plan, and now it’s going on almost 40 years for us,” Payne said. “We’re still going to keep going. It’s been a heck of a ride so far.”