Though they were never hugely successful in terms of hit singles or record sales, Little Feat are inarguably one of the great American rock & roll bands. That you may never have heard anything beyond “Dixie Chicken” is a failure of radio, or perhaps your parents didn’t raise you properly. Either way, over the next couple of weeks, you have the chance to change your foolish ways.

Or hey, maybe you’re a true fan — in which case, please feel free to correct my many mistakes and/or argue vehemently with me regarding the merits of Down on the Farm. There’s room for everyone here.

The band was founded in 1969 by guitarist/singer/creative madman Lowell George and bassist Roy Estrada, both erstwhile members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. (Actually, George’s story goes back a lot farther than that, but for the rest of it, in order to conserve time and space, I’ll point you toward our good friend Wikipedia.) Whether you believe the story that says the straight-edged Zappa fired George for submitting his drug-referencing composition “Willin’” for consideration, or the story that says Zappa was so impressed with “Willin’” and George’s talent that he encouraged him to strike out on his own, the bottom line is that Zappa did the world a favor.

Lowell George’s was a tremendous, singular talent; he had the sort of musical affinity that allowed him to acquire fluency with multiple instruments, and a casual, fearless iconoclasm that skewed both his songwriting and playing away from the ordinary and into the sublime. This sounds like gushing, especially given how I seem to qualify every positive statement I make around here, but it’s true — Lowell George was really that good.

Little Feat (1971)
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Little Feat - Little Feat

As with many debut albums, Little Feat isn’t wholly representative of the band’s signature sound. Though in time the George-led Feat would go on to successfully interweave any number of musical threads, in the beginning, they were more of a blues band. This isn’t entirely true, not even on the debut — listen to the country-and-gospel-inflected “Brides of Jesus” (download) — but for the most part, it was Lowell’s peculiar take on the blues, anchored by his deep-fried howl and socket-wrench slide guitar, that ran the show.

George and Estrada had, by this time, joined up with drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Billy Payne, two musicians who’d go on to play enormous roles in the Little Feat story; the resultant combo turned in these eleven wonderfully greasy, criminally ignored tracks. It’s impossible to pick just two to share, so here’s “Hamburger Midnight” (download) and the greatest rock & roll eulogy for a dream ever written, “I’ve Been the One” (download). But that leaves out “Snakes on Everything,” “Strawberry Flats,” the blues medley, and, well, the rest of the record. Which you need to own.

Nobody bought it, of course, and the band started tinkering with its sound right away. The results would be more commercially successful and wider in scope, but still, it’s hard not to wonder what sort of wonderful damage this crew could have done to the blues if they’d stayed the course.

Then again, the odds of Lowell George staying any kind of course were always rather low.

Sailin’ Shoes (1972)
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Little Feat - Sailin' Shoes

As reinventions go, Sailin’ Shoes is a half-measure, which is — considering that there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with the band in the first place — just fine. You’ve still got a healthy helping of George’s sweaty, paranoid blues, led by the album’s second track, “Cold Cold Cold” (download).

The song, aside from being a stone classic, embodies everything that was ever right about Little Feat: Lowell George had a perfect voice for electric blues, equal parts razor blades and honey; he knew how to play an incredibly nasty slide guitar; and he had a gift for pushing and pulling the melody against the beat. “Cold” should make you smile, curl your toes, and bring a tear to your eye all at once.

The rest of the album, as they say, ain’t bad. As I noted before, you still get plenty of George’s dirty blues, but the band opens up its sound a little here, adding shades of pop and country, and relying more on open, sunnier-sounding tunes like the shoulda-been-a-hit “Easy to Slip” and a reworked “Willin’.” And then there’s stuff that’s just uniquely George, uniquely Feat, like the title track (download) and the beautifully weary “Trouble” (download).

The album was another commercial whiff for the band, leading to a temporary breakup. When the band reformed, it was without Estrada, who had left music altogether; he was replaced with Kenny Gradney. The band also made room for another guitarist, Paul Barrére, and percussionist Sam Clayton.

Dixie Chicken (1973)
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Little Feat - Dixie Chicken

This album marks the beginning of the sound that most people think of when you mention Little Feat — a sort of southern-fried take on New Orleans rhythm & blues, with echoes of everything else the band had tried to that point thrown in for good measure. It’s a mellower sound, to be sure, and lacks the raw bite of the band’s earlier stuff, but what they lost in grit, they gained in flavor. The result, in this album’s title track, was their long-sought-after hit; “Dixie Chicken” has gone on to become not only a jammy staple of the band’s live act, but a genuine FM standard. You’ve heard it hundreds of times already.

What you may not have heard is the rest of the record, which is just as good, if not better. George’s “Two Trains” (download) and “Roll Um Easy” (download) sum up both sides of the band’s new sound, and illustrate how, with equal skill, Lowell George could shake your ass and pull your heartstrings. Though his writing was still far from ordinary, this album marks the spot where his efforts to work in more mainstream elements started paying real dividends.

Dixie Chicken isn’t Little Feat’s deepest record, but it contains many of George’s best songs, it’s an unabashed ’70s classic, and people were beginning to pay attention to the group’s smart songwriting and tight playing.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974)
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Little Feat - Feats Don't Fail Me Now

Feats is another solid entry in the Little Feat catalog, but the seams were starting to show. At the time, Lowell George’s reduced participation only opened up the spotlight to include more great music from Bill Payne (”Oh Atlanta” [download]) and Paul Barrére (”Skin it Back” [download]). In hindsight, though, the album offers some nasty foreshadowing. Whether the tension that ultimately engulfed the band had more to do with George’s destructive lifestyle, or Payne and Barrére’s increasing affinity for fusion rock, is open for debate — but the answer probably doesn’t matter much.

For the moment, though, Little Feat was a band at the peak of its power. Feats rubs off a little of Dixie Chicken’s mellow charm, restoring enough sass to the band’s sound to distract the listener from the fact that the album is only eight songs long (and that one of those songs is actually a medley of “Cold Cold Cold” and “Tripe Face Boogie”). Feats is also noteworthy in that it represents the birth of the good-timey jam band that Little Feat remains to this day.

As a result, this record is probably also where the road starts to divide among Feat fans; there are those for whom the band will forever be in Lowell George’s shadow, while for others, they were just as good without him — if not better.

The Last Record Album (1975)
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Little Feat - The Last Record Album

Up ’til now, this Guide has probably read like a Lowell George hagiography, holding up his songs and playing as Little Feat’s most important ingredients and allowing the other bandmembers to fade into the background. This is partly by design — those guys get their turn to shine soon enough — but also, to be honest, the result of irrational fan worship on my part.

It’s for this reason that it’s especially important to note what George was doing wrong by the time The Last Record Album came out. There’s the obvious — he was allowing his habits to take him away from the music — but that isn’t all. For all the inspiration the band’s music drew from the Delta South, Little Feat’s members remained squarely L.A.-based throughout the ’70s; this had a lot to do with their increasing demand as session players, but it also dulled George’s musical perspective.

This is all a fancy way of saying that George’s production work on Last Record sucks the big one. You’d think it was impossible to take the teeth out of a unit as powerful as Little Feat; he doesn’t quite do that here, but he does manage to file them pretty far down. There’s still some great stuff here, particularly Barrére and Payne’s “All That You Dream” (download) and George’s “Long Distance Love” (download), but on the whole, these performances are dispiritingly bland.

Things really weren’t all that dire yet — this isn’t a bad album. In fact, if they hadn’t set the bar so high with the stuff they’d done before, Last Record would be better than fine. For a band whose spark and originality had always made the extra difference, though, it was a disappointment.

Time Loves a Hero (1977)
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Little Feat - Time Loves a Hero

Due to Lowell George’s increasing distraction and alienation from the rest of Little Feat, Time Loves a Hero represents — depending on your perspective — either George’s last creative wheeze with the band, or the true coming-out party for Paul Barrére and Billy Payne. No matter which way you look at it, though, the wheels were really coming off the wagon at this point; though Hero contains a reliable handful of great tunes (in particular the title track [download] and “Old Folks’ Boogie” [download]), the album’s overall lack of inspiration and focus is alarming when you consider that these were the same guys who were threatening to reinvent the wheel five years previous.

Emblematic of the band’s disarray is the album’s fourth track, the six-minute-plus instrumental “Day at the Dog Races.” Though Lowell George had already effectively ceded his benign creative quasi-dictatorship, he still had definite opinions about the band’s creative direction; arguably the loudest of these opinions was his dislike of the Feat’s gradual drift toward jazz-rock fusion territory. Fusion, like a lot of music from the decade, seemed like a good idea at the time — and when it’s done properly (which is exceedingly rarely), it can even be enjoyable. “Dog Races” is fusion, and not good fusion, either. The rest of the band loved it. George thought it sounded like Weather Report. He was right. The song isn’t Shaggs-like awful; these guys knew how to play. It’s just boring — something Little Feat had never been before.

Waiting for Columbus (1978)
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Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus - Deluxe Edition

Listening to Waiting for Columbus, you’d never guess that this incarnation of Little Feat was on its last legs, which is probably why it’s the group’s best-selling release (not to mention inevitably mentioned whenever rock dorks start discussing Best Live Albums Ever).

Columbus deserves all the sales and high praise. Not only does it demonstrate freakishly uncommon levels of power and communication (and remember, this was a band several years removed from its peak), but virtually every performance surpasses its studio counterpart. A true Little Feat best-of has never been released, but it doesn’t matter; Waiting for Columbus covers the Lowell George era so completely and so convincingly that further compilations would be superfluous.

A band this good should have gone on, unchanged, forever. Its members should have been living in platinum-lined palaces. They should have conquered the world. And yet, for most intents and purposes, this represents the end of the line for Little Feat 2.0.

Enough said. Rather than reading my babbling, you should be listening to “Fat Man in the Bathtub” (download), “Dixie Chicken” (download), and “Spanish Moon” (download).

Down on the Farm (1979)
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Little Feat - Down on the Farm

Some critics will tell you that Down on the Farm isn’t Little Feat’s worst album. They’ll say that honor belongs to 1991’s Shake Me Up. They are wrong.

In the wake of Time Loves a Hero, the group set about working on the follow-up, largely without Lowell George, who was either too pharmaceutically distracted or too involved in the making of his solo debut (or both). In any event, that solo album — titled Thanks I’ll Eat it Here — was released before Farm was finished. George announced that Little Feat had broken up, hit the road in support of Thanks, and — after a show on June 28, 1979 — suffered a massive heart attack. He died the following day.

Inarguably, Lowell George was a poor custodian for his talent; though he made a lot of great music, he could have made a lot more. He could have bounced back from the rut he’d been in — Thanks showed encouraging signs of life — and matched, or surpassed, the creative peaks he’d scaled as a younger man. It’s nearly impossible to be a fan of Little Feat’s early music and not feel cheated by George’s death.

Which makes Down on the Farm, containing his last recordings with the band, such a bitter pill to swallow.

There really aren’t many positive things you can say about Farm. The production is flaccid, the songs average, and the performances as uninspired as you’d expect from such a patchwork affair. The band finished the album without George after he died, no doubt contributing to its piecemeal vibe, but even if he hadn’t died, it’s hard to imagine Farm turning out much better. With Time Loves a Hero, Little Feat moved so far into the middle of the road that, at times, they sounded like a Doobie Brothers cover band — and that would have been an improvement over what’s here.

It’s hard to choose two highlights, but I suppose the title track (download) and “Straight from the Heart” (download) will do.

This would be the lowest of notes for Little Feat’s story to end on; fortunately, in next week’s installment, we’ll take a look at how, almost a decade after his death, the band reconvened without Lowell George and started making new music again. Not everyone would be happy with this decision, of course, but I’ll save that for Part Two…

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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