Gave the People What They Had

Sometimes, the best new music is the best old music

But Zappa eventually sent him packing:, and shortly thereafter, George assembled Little Feat, whose first squad featured drummer Richie Hayward, with whom he'd worked in a short-lived collective dubbed the Factory, plus keyboardist Payne and bassist Roy Estrada, another Mothers refugee. Their first disc, 1971's Little Feat, represented on Hotcakes by two swell efforts, "Strawberry Midnight" and "Hamburger Midnight," sported rough-hewn production (by Russ Titleman), eccentric structures, skewed lyrics, and George's idiosyncratic vocals and slide work.

The result was a bracing collection of American miniatures that didn't sell squat, so George and company began looking for ways to make their offerings more accessible. The subsequent Sailin' Shoes (1972) was notably more sleek and FM-friendly thanks to producer Ted Templeman, who had turned the Doobie Brothers into a reliable hit machine, but George chipped in too, penning digestible pop nuggets such as "Easy to Slip"; retooling "Willin'," which had appeared in a rougher version on the preceding platter; and generally attempting to convince the mainstream that Little Feat belonged. George's abilities were such that most of the tracks worked well, despite the appeasements, and the act kept a few curve balls in its arsenal--most notably "Teenage Nervous Breakdown," a wonderfully witty burst of pre-punk that, unfortunately, appears on Hotcakes in a jam-happy 1976 live rendition and a tentative demo.

But again, sales were modest, prompting Estrada to split, and the addition of second guitarist Barrère and the funky combo of bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton fundamentally changed Little Feat. Suddenly the succinct tunesmithing of the first two albums was supplanted by arrangements that allowed room for improvisation. The transition wasn't an immediate one: 1973's Dixie Chicken is still a relatively tight affair, with George compositions such as "Fat Man in the Bathtub" and the ultra-witty title track adding immeasurably to what is probably the group's most consistent long-player, and 1974's Feats Don't Fail Me Now, recorded after a brief breakup, has strong George moments such as the sparkling "Spanish Moon." But the balance of power in the band was shifting, and so was the sound, which was taking on an almost jazz-fusion flavor.

Stevie Wonder solidified his legend with three albums released in the span of just a few months.
Stevie Wonder solidified his legend with three albums released in the span of just a few months.
Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, released in 1982, may be more relevant now than it was in the shadow of Reagan.
Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, released in 1982, may be more relevant now than it was in the shadow of Reagan.

The move expanded the group's audience among Deadheads, but as the group's fortunes rose, its main man retreated. George made comparatively few contributions to 1975's The Last Record Album and 1977's Templeman-produced Time Loves a Hero, allowing Barrère and Payne to dominate, and the majority of the tunes he supplied for these salvos, including "Long Distance Love" and "Mercenary Territory," had a somewhat juiceless quality about them. Although the band's growing renown led to friendship with and adoration by the Linda Ronstadt crowd (Payne, especially, became a studio favorite among her clique), not to mention a taste of the success for which George had long hungered, it also left him strangely unsatisfied. He stuck around through Waiting for Columbus, a 1978 live package that solidified Little Feat's in-concert rep, but bailed during the sessions for the tepid, patchwork Down on the Farm in favor of a solo gambit too strenuous for his heart to handle.

It takes the first two discs of Hotcakes to cover this period, and if the song selection sometimes seems to include more ditties by Barrère and Payne than is strictly necessary to accentuate the thesis that Little Feat was more than George, it still provides a decent overview. But the decision to devote all of the third CD to comeback recordings canned between 1988 and 1998 goes much too far in trying to prop up this highly questionable argument. Former Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller, who was hired to fill the large vacancy in the lineup, does a decent job of aping George on cuts such as "Hate to Lose Your Lovin'" and "Let It Roll," but his impression wears thin quickly. Worse are the tracks helmed by Fuller's successor, Shaun Murphy, who alternately sounds like a faux Janis Joplin and a bogus Bonnie Raitt. And while the fourth disc, labeled "Studio Artifacts," contains some curios that will rev up the true believers, the most entertaining items--"Lightning-Rod Man," a Factory session produced by Zappa; the Howlin' Wolf-inspired blues of "Rat Faced Dog"; and the impassioned "Juliet," which became "Juliette" on Dixie Chicken--are the ones magnetized before George became worried about popular indifference or ground down by band politics. On them, he's simply making music for the hell of it, and it shows.

The spark that George gave to Little Feat had been dimming for some time before it finally went out, and in the 20-plus years since then, the rest of the band has been unable to rekindle it. Hotcakes & Outtakes, like so many other pieces of historical revisionism clogging the marketplace these days, tries to tell a different story, but the real one's still in there. You just have to look for it. (Michael Roberts)

 

 

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