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THE ROCK AND ROLL DOCTORS
by Don Snowden
"Well, they say time loves a hero But only time will tell If he's real, he's a legend from heaven If he ain't he's a mouthpiece from hell"
If rave press notices and the acclaim of their fellow musicians were the standard measure of success in the rock world, Little Feat would surely have been enshrined in the pantheon or rock and roll legends a long time ago. The rock media has long hailed them as one of the premier musical outfits in the known universe. Groups as stylistically diverse as Marshall Tucker and Led Zeppelin have publicly proclaimed the Feats as their favorite band. When Little Feat journeyed to Europe two years ago as part of a Warner Bros. package tour--a jaunt that saw them steal the show night after night from the headlining Doobie Brothers--the Stones made their first public appearance as a group in some five years to catch one of their shows.
And yet Little Feat remains something of prophets without honor in their own land, still slogging around the country playing 3000 seat arenas. The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt have come to epitomize the LA sound and scene but Little Feat is perhaps the quintessential LA band, far more representative of the city's cultural diversity than the more homogenous styles of their better known compatriots. For all their commercial success, the Eagles recall nothing so much as a Schlitz beer commercial, the music a blend of the choicest ingredients honed to a polished technical precision, the lyrics a succession of exhortations to grab for all the gusto you can while living the fashionably desperate life in the fast lane. But beneath the glossy surface, one senses little, if any, feeling in Eagles music. They're always one step removed from the action, the clinically detached observer cooly surveying the scene with little compassion for the people in their songs.
And while the Eagles roam the canyons and mansions as the balladeers of hip LA, Little Feat chronicles life in the lower rent districts of the City of Angels from the emotional perspective of the bluesman. Their musical world is populated by truckers, streetwalkers, pimps and other assorted low-life characters who never seem to have their lives quite together. The Feats' cast of characters are endlessly fighting to make ends meet, attempting to scrape up enough money for a night on the town, trying to get laid and usually failing--perhaps the greatest single difference between the two bands is the contrast between the smug macho stance of Eagles songs like "Tequila Sunrise" and "Already Gone" and the anguish of Feat numbers like "Fat Man In The Bathtub" -struggling to reconcile their dreams with the disappointments that life brings. The people in their songs really hurt, admittedly in some bizarre ways when filtered through the gonzo-bozo sensibilities of Lowell George and company.
lt strikes me that in many ways Little Feat and-gulp!-Roxy Music represent flip sides of the same coin. Both are centered around singer-songwriters whose unique personal vision has often overshadowed the contributions of the other band members in the eyes of the media. Both are constantly creative bands, equally adept at performing straightforward songs or stretching out on improvisational forays. Both have adopted a consistent visual approach to their albums, be it Roxy's tackily decadent fantasy girls or the surreal slices of Americana-courtesy of Neon Park--adorning the covers of Little Feat records. Both are bands who have successfully synthesized elements from several diverse musical styles into a distinctive group sound. Where Roxy Music works with the English pop and rock traditions as well as the electronic experimentalism of the European avant garde, Little Feat approaches matters more from the rhythmic side, mining the American tradition for blues, r&b, country and jazz influences. Obviously there are difficulties with the comparison--the suavely stylized, lovelorn romantic persona of Bryan Ferry makes for strange bedfellows with Lowell George. a decidedly unglamorous figure who often seems hard pressed to keep his eyes open for the duration of one of the Feats' live sets.
The first edition of Little Feat--featuring Mothers--Standells veteran George, Santa Barbara keyboard whiz Bill Payne, ex-Fraternity of Man drummer Richie Hayward and former Mothers bassist Roy Estrada--emerged out of the LA ozone in 1970 to virtually unanimous critical approval. Their debut album revealed a tight quartet with a pair of songwriters in Payne and George firmly grounded in the country and blues traditions and a lyrical stance seemingly derived from a lifetime spent on the road between California and Texas. With Lowell's unique use of the slide guitar-- more as an atmospheric tone color than as an exercise in flashy solo pyrotechnics--and Bill's keyboard work as focal points, the Feats strutted out on Howlin Wolf's "Forty-Four Blues," painted musical pictures of truck stop America in "Strawberry Flats" and "Hamburger Heaven" as well as Lowell's classic anthem to the renegade trucker "Willin'."
"Sailin shoes" followed in early `72, finding the band adopting a more guitar oriented, rock and roll sound that reminded many of a Topanga Canyon version of the Stones. The visions of the trucker's life have largely been replaced by Lowell's sardonic jabs at life in LA on a succession of songs-- "Cold, Cold, Cold," "Tripe Face Boogie," the title track, "A Apolitical Blues" that are still regularly featured in the live set. The band seemed poised on the brink of a major breakthrough but Estrada chose that particular point to depart for the somewhat saner pastures of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.
A radically revamped and expanded lineup surfaced early in 1973 with a sound as sophisticated and refined as Shoes was rough and ready. The addition of Paul Barrere (guitar), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Sam Clayton (percussion) brought a funky element into the group's ensemble work with each member filling the gaps left by the other players. Payne began working some rollicking syncopated licks into his keyboard playing and Hayward reined in his drumming to leave space for Clayton's conga embellishments and Gradney's superbly understated bass lines (Lowell wasn't kidding when he wrote in the liner notes to Feats, Don't Fail Me Now, "do not be deceived by nor take lightly this bit of musicianship that one describes simply as bass").
"Dixie Chicken", the first album featuring the current lineup, is a transitional album in retrospect, the band members still feeling each other out and standard Feat fare like the marvelous title track and the Bo Diddley-visits-Mexico-flavored "Fat Man In The Bath Tub" co-existing with the off the wall exercises like "Kiss It Off." After a period of soul searching that nearly saw the band break up again, the Feats regrouped in Maryland for "Feats Don't Fail Me Now", an unabashed attempt to capture the power of their live performance on record that ranks as their most consistently satisfying effort to date. There simply is not a weak cut on the album, whether the band is interpreting ne\V material like "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor" and "Oh, Atlanta," whipping a couple of their old standards into a tasty medley or moving into more progressive terrain on the 7/4 workout "Wait Till The Shit Hits The Fan."
After another unanticipated delay caused by circumstances beyond their musical control-- Hayward broke several ribs and a couple of fingers in a motorcycle accident--the Feats returned in late `75 with "The Last Record Album" and another apparent shift in focus. The sound is heavily textured, the music locked into the same loping mid-tempo backbeat and the lyrics primarily sagebrush sagas of a lonely dude trying to get laid down below the borderline. There is an overall sameness to the record that makes it work as a total entity but only"Long Distance Love" and"All That You Dream" are really distinctive songs that you could walk around humming to yourself.
So, in keeping perfectly in tune with Little Feat's peculiar sense of logic, "Time Loves A Hero" is as stylistically scattered as its predecessor was unified. This is really first time that the band has failed to develop a cohesive group sound out of the diverse elements that make up their music. You can easily tell who wrote which songs and the material is a virtual encyclopedia of the varied styles they've used over the years, though with a decided shift toward a straight forward r&b foundation. The other unusual factor is that Lowell George, probably due to working on his solo album, seems curiously out of place here. Some of his musical trademarks--notably the atmospheric slick guitar and double-tracked vocals--simply don't fit in and the entire album bears the creative stamp of Payne and Barrere far more than the man most people identify with Little Feat.
That said, "Hero" is yet another in a long succession of excellent Little Feat albums. All the songs between the title track and the red Streamliner" --plus the smokey blues "-' Up With The Joneses"--are first rate. The album's twin highlights provide the best example of the wide range of musical sources the Feats are capable of drawing from. Side one closes with the 6 1/2 minute jazz-tinged instrumental "Day At The Dog Races"--opening with an absolutely absurd, and consequently wonderful, synthesized mariachi fanfare from Payne that perfectly showcases the band's instrumental abilities in a progressive context. Flip the record over and you're confronted by a slice of vintage Chicago blues in "Old Folks Boogie," with drumming that could have stepped off of a Howlin' old record and a lyrical hook ("You know that you're over the hill/When your mind makes a promise that your body can't fill.") That's almost worth the price of the album alone.
It's probably that very ability to jump from one end of the musical spectrum to the other that has kept the Feats from getting their just due, popularity-wise. Their creative muse is simply so restless that they never stay in one place--the trades still haven't figured out what to call them-- long enough for people to catch up with them. If you've been along for the entire ride, the constant creativity is one of their most endearing features but it does make it a bit difficult for people to hop on along the way. To my mind, the one thing that remains to put them over the top is a double album of one of their live performances with an appropriate push from Warner Bros. The Feats have never failed me on the concert stage, being one of the few bands in the world that invariably keep the foot tapping throughout the course of a set. But don't take my word for it. Just ask the rock `n' roll doctors' advice.
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