For many Little Feat fans, the band died with Lowell George. The idea of their going on without George was obscene. That would be like the Dead going on without Jerry, the Allmans without Duane, Van Halen without Diamond Dave.
But a decade after George’s death in 1979, five band members reunited to give Little Feat a second chance. In 1988, the band released the album Let It Roll and hit the road in support. Keyboardist and founding member Bill Payne remembers those first suspicious audiences.
“There was one gig we played in South London,” he recalls, “and we got out there on stage and they were just standing there, and just about everyone had their arms crossed like ‘C’mon, show us.’ We started playing and you could watch their faces and their body language change. Their arms went from folded to down at their sides, and by the time we left that stage their arms were straight up in the air.” Let It Roll worked. Yes, the band sounded older. Yes, George’s songwriting was sorely missed. But the album sold decently and added a few strong new songs to the band’s live set. Little Feat had picked the right time to give it another go.
The 12 months after Let It Roll was released saw an unprecedented resurgence of Southern rock, roots rock and jam bands. The Black Crowes went into the studio to record Shake Your Money Maker, Phish released their debut, Junta, and Little Feat-peers the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers were preparing comeback tours.
With momentum from this late ’80s musical climate, Little Feat kept rolling, parlaying the energy into an equally successful second life. In the past 15 years, the band has recorded seven albums of original material. They’ve also toured relentlessly (playing over a thousand shows), released a half dozen live albums and a boxed set, and started their own record company, Hot Tomato. The past decade and a half has also shown that Little Feat can exist without George.
Payne admits that the second incarnation feels different, and that some fans will never accept the new band. At a music conference in Colorado a few years ago, Payne was on a discussion panel. As he was being introduced, a man in back of the room stood up and shouted: “Is Lowell still with you?” Payne grabbed the mic and said: “Always.”
“Lowell is a part of our family,” he insists, “and we try to honor him every time we hit the stage.”
Payne doesn’t care much what the naysayers think. He thinks his playing and his band are still evolving creatively. He’s also keenly aware of the musical climate today. He sees bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident as extensions of Little Feat and the Dead. And he’s happy to see music that doesn’t follow formulas survive and thrive.
Back in the day, Little Feat bombed. George and original bassist Roy Estrada were in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention before hooking up with Payne and founding their own band, and in the beginning, listeners didn’t much take to the band’s Zappa-influenced weirdness. Today’s music industry hasn’t changed much, Payne says—any derivation from the norm still isn’t appreciated.
“Look at Norah Jones,” he offers by way of example, speaking of the platinum-selling R&B singer and daughter of Ravi Shankar. “She’s someone who could have been easily pigeonholed into a certain area. Now she’s doing stuff that’s a little more eclectic than on her last record, but if it doesn’t sell 12 million copies it’s considered a failure. Well fuck them, is how I look at it.”
Norah Jones, according to Payne, has got to do what satisfies her as an artist. Sales, he insists, aren’t—or at least shouldn’t be—the final measure of artistic success.
“Bill Evans is another example,” says Payne. “If Evans plays in a jazz club for a hundred people, it doesn’t make his music less powerful, less important.”
Payne’s take on success fits his own career nicely. In the last 15 years, Little Feat has been prolific, but all their albums combined haven’t sold what Norah Jones’ debut sold. Little Feat and Payne have gotten by on appreciation, diehard fans staying true to the band, and musicians both old and young celebrating the band’s talents.
Drummer Ritchie Hayward, for instance, is currently touring with Bob Dylan, and Payne produced the most recent Leftover Salmon album. For Payne it’s these, subtle, little compliments, these tributes, that have kept him excited about playing.
“I met Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones for the first time in 1975 when they came to hear Little Feat play,” he explains. “I said something to Keith about how overwhelmed I was that he was there. And he just said, ‘Ah, mate‚’ and gave me a pat on the back like, ‘We know you guys like us, and we like you too. Don’t worry, you’re a part of this now.’”
Things played out the same way when Payne met Dylan for the first time, and B.B. King, and Willie Nelson. Payne just hopes his work with Leftover Salmon and other ’60s-inspired bands is carrying on the tradition.
Who knows how long people will keep coming to see Little Feat, how long their rebirth will last. For Payne, the future may be wrapped up in the lyrics to “Old Folks Boogie,” how you know you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fulfill. As of 2004, that hasn’t happened to Payne or his band. Not just yet.
Little Feat plays the Wilma Theatre on Monday, April 19.