If ever a beloved band (besides the seminal country-rockers Poco) deserved its story told, it’s Little feat. One of the most distinctive rock and roll units of its time, Lowell George and co. went unjustly under recognized during his lifetime despite an affectionate fanbase whose passion and loyalty far surpassed its numbers. Founding Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres does an admirably restrained job of telling the Feats story factually and without undue melodrama.
Meticulously gathering facts like the expert reporter that he is, Fong-Torres speaks with seemingly all those around George at every point in his life, including friends, relatives and contemporary musicians. And it’s a necessity borne of circumstance as the subject and the author rarely if ever spoke directly, but that said, the latter refuses to slant the perception of this idiosyncratic musician whose artistic talent was inextricably interwoven with personality traits that attracted and repelled those around him and led to his premature death in 1979.
While rumors of dissension were regular and public during their mid-to late Seventies period, what may be most revelatory within Willin’ is the sometimes painfully detailed depiction of the friction within Little Feat. Particularly during that phase of their career when, having morphed into a New Orleans-influence sextet from its original alignment as something of a folk-rock/Americana quartet, the support of the Warner Bros. record label and devoted fans in the radio community would not translate into mainstream success beyond their loyal followers. Fong-Torres hints ever so lightly that, protestations to the contrary, Lowell George may have preferred it that way.
Following Little Feat through the post-George era, their hiatus (and the personal travails of some of its members) and their latter-day career rejuvenation offers a modern spin on the group’s longevity: spearheaded by keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Bill Payne, the Feats utilized the world wide web to consolidate their community even as new players and singers (including Pure Prairie League’s Craig Fuller and Bob Seger backup vocalist Shaun Murphy) came and went.
It’s at this point in the story, where a more unified approach sustained the band’s efforts, that it occurs Fong-Torres might’ve taken a more insistent approach on examining the band dynamics during the interval Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere spearheaded a jazz-fusion style; the communication within the personalities was so poor, the duo couldn’t posit the possibility of their own instrumental band as an alternative to objections of George’s so strenuous, he would leave the stage when the group played the non-sequitur instrumental “Day at the Dog Races.”
To Ben-Fong-Torres’ credit, his abiding interest in Little Feat never wavers during the course of Willin’ even when that might be natural, as when he depicts the group’s attention to detail in completing the studio album, Down on the Farm, in the wake of their titular leader’s death. More than passing mention might be made of the comprehensive career retrospective, Hotcakes and Outtakes, at least as it was a natural outgrowth of a less broad archive piece, Hoy Hoy, that might well have figured more prominently in the surviving members’ renewed faith in the Little Feat legacy.
Especially since the author presents more than a little attention to latter-day recording projects, The Story of Little Feat would be even more substantial than it is (more than a little reminiscent of a vintage RS feature piece) with an attached discography, perhaps including some astute analysis of the titles. Such info is available elsewhere, however, while the tales Ben Fong-Torres tells here- including Lowell George’s misconceived collaboration with the Grateful Dead and founding member/drummer Richie Hayward’s dignified struggle with cancer-will be hard if not impossible to find in such clear-eyed remembrance.