Gave the People What They Had

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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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