Bill Payne, Paul Barrere and their cohorts in Little Feat are probably well aware that they could coast on the strength of the catalog and get away with it. Little Feat’s output, taken as a whole, is not only humbling in its accomplishment but still underrated enough as to have ardent fans who are fiercely protective of it. In other words, a stock setlist with Dixie Chicken and Willin’ as the centerpieces, performed with minimal gusto, would be enough to do the job and enough to keep Little Feat-headlined concert halls comfortably packed. The songs are friggin’ beautiful, and so very loaded — they’d lend nicely to a revue, wouldn’t they?
That it isn’t that way is precisely what makes the Little Feat touring apparatus so compelling. It’s a more streamlined unit than in the past — Shaun Murphy’s vocals are missed, and drummer Richie Hayward is sidelined in cancer recovery — but its members dig deep, radiate a love of these songs and a pronounced interest in their care and feeding, and even on an off night, can pull some terrifically groovy and expansive improvisational flights from the guts of well-worn jamming vehicles. It’s what keeps them fresh — Little Feat shows sound so damn fresh — and is why I push Little Feat on those who’ve either never had the pleasure or are still convinced Little Feat went under when Lowell George did.
In recent visits to the Big Apple, the band’s favored the Concert Hall at the New York Society for Ethical Culture: a pretty place for sure, with good acoustics and a comfortable vibe. It wasn’t quite full — I’d guess about 75-80 percent, with low-end tickets north of $50 with fees — but the Feat brought the heat for two hours, leaning hard on bluesadelic jams that favored carving songs out from within more often than straight, with you-solo-now-you-solo structures.
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[Photo by Christian James]
These guys like to take the warhorses and really stretch them out, toying with the details. There’s Fred Tackett for example, attaching a muted trumpet intro to the slow buildup of Dixie Chicken. Or the rhythm section (bassist Kenny Gradney, percussionist Sam Clayton and interim drummer Gabe Ford) entering a really “out” section of jamspace during the song’s gooey, improv-heavy middle. Or the rippling funk jams that blew Spanish Moon wide open: lengthy, bracing Barrere guitar flights that rode the pocket. Or the quick left turns into choice covers like Long Black Veil, The Weight and Tennessee Jed that were given enough space to not feel like distractions from whatever song they’d bled out of.
The band has such great gestalt; songs get to marinate and cook in their own juices, rarely too long and often just long enough, to provide maximum impact. That’s what I turn to when met by Feat disparagers convinced these shows are just 20+ minute versions of Feat classics with guitar and keyboard solos there to mark time.
The highs from here were many, not the least of which was a sit-in from strings master Larry Campbell — who hasn’t Larry played with at this point? — staying for more than half the show and providing fiddle that was often tender (Willin) and often furious (Feats Don’t Fail Me Now). Willin itself was dedicated to Hayward, and Barrere milked it for every drop, including a crowd singalong on Don’t Bogart That Joint. Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo — which opened and deserved a lot more of the crowd’s attention than it got, at least where I was sitting — lent washboard to a sizzling Cajun Girl, which ended with her, Campbell and Tackett standing in a semi-circle, jamming away with zydeco abandon.
Only a few times did the band get lost in the muck — the stronger jams left more pedestrian you-solo-now-you-solo moments a little stale — but the show was a nice mix of folk-rock and footstompers, blues and boogie. Little Feat shows have a nourishing effect. Much like the records, they’re at root great party music and rock ‘n’ roll – blown cues, chuckles, in-jokes and indulgences and all — and the band is so committed to preserving that vibe that its ace professionalism and warm-hearted way about things has a way of sneaking up on you.