Something definitely changed for Little Feat with Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. The reasons are quite apparent. Lowell George was no longer the dominant guitarist and songwriter for the group. His contributions were increasingly of a more ordinary and secondary nature. Paul Barrere and Bill Payne were taking on more of a role in place of Lowell. And so, the music focused more consistently on feel-good groove rock. There really weren’t any quirky, off-beat lyrics anymore, and the music as a whole was more steady and tame. That isn’t to say the Feat sounded bad. In fact, this is a pretty fun record. It just doesn’t sparkle with quite the charisma that the group’s earlier records had. You can still count this (along with the first three albums) as essential Little Feat though.
All things considered, Dixie Chicken is probably the best place to start with Little Feat. The group’s sound was well defined by this point. The eccentric characters and stories of “Dixie Chicken” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” sit well with the nice ballads “Roll Um Easy” and “Fool Yourself” and the increasingly boogie-rock oriented material like “Two Trains” and “Walkin’ All Night.” Lowell George, the group’s star and best songwriter, guitarist, and singer, was still a major force on this album, before he started to fade away from the spotlight in the coming years. From here, go back to the previous album Sailin’ Shoes, which is more eccentric and is even better, or, if the slicker, more boogie-oriented stuff is more to your liking, head for Little Feat’s next album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.
When I was involved with college radio, there was a very explicit idea conveyed to everyone at the station that you needed to play music outside of what you could hear on typical commercial radio. Whenever classic rock or 1970s rock in general was mentioned, Little Feat was a common example of what was okay to play, as being a band generally overlooked. This always caught my attention, because in high school I had come across Little Feat and a few of their records that I had were favorites that I played over and over. Now, I don’t mean to imply that classic rock stations didn’t play Little Feat — I had heard “Dixie Chicken” on the radio before, on a rare occasion, but that was only when a station had some kind of marathon event where it played one song by every artist in its library. The basic point here is that Little Feat never quite clicked with a huge audience for whatever reason. But they clicked with me early on. Fast forward quite some time and I find myself still listening to and enjoying the music of Little Feat.
Perhaps the most overrated album in Little Feat’s discography is Waiting for Columbus. It is a decent live set, with most of their best songs accounted for. Still, this came at a time when Lowell George‘s influence was waning and things were drifting towards bland, shallow blues knock offs and limp groove rock. In all, not bad, but hardly anything that special. Then again, if all along you thought the problem with Little Feat was that they didn’t sound enough like The Doobie Brothers, well, this might be exactly what you were waiting for.
Sailin’ Shoes may be the best Little Feat album. I like the eclecticism of their debut, and this one tones that down a bit. But the focus and polish here works for the band rather than against them. The songwriting is again superb, thanks to Lowell George. It embraces rather than fears the weirdness out there in the world. I wish all southern/classic rock held up this well.
Disc one is a great summary of the reasons Little Feat was a fantastic band in their day. Disc two charts their decline and transformation into a third- or fourth-tier jazz fusion outfit. Disc three–barely listenable–tracks much of their post-Lowell George reunion. Disc four is a collection of outtakes and rarities, including live takes and some Lowell George and The Factory cuts. Disc one deserves five stars, even if I would love to see maybe a few more songs from the debut LP represented. Disc two gets boring quickly. Disc three, *sigh*, is a complete waste of space. The group was churning out pretty formulaic “New Orleans” style boogie rock at that point, they rarely had a decent singer (though Shaun Murphy helped in that department), and most of all they didn’t have any good material to work with. The thing about Little Feat was that Lowell George was that band. As his influence in the band declined before his early death, the music declined in parallel. Without him, the band was just uninspired. There is an interesting quote in the liner notes though. One of the band members talks about the reunion and ponders: how can they make it not seem like money-grubbing? Answer: you don’t. If it is truly only about the music, get together and play in your garage.
This set includes too much useless junk to recommend outright. Feat fanatics may like the rarities and outtakes disc. Ideally, though, stand-alone versions of just discs one and four would really be the ticket for newcomers and the fanatics.