Backstage Pass: Come join the band with Little Feat

Funky as all get out, off the charts as far as musicianship goes and incredibly diverse, merging earthy strains of blues, R&B, country, jazz, folk, swamp boogie and rock ‘n’ roll, Little Feat brought a little Southern California sophistication to Southern rock in the late-’60s and ’70s.

Little Feat’s roots can be traced to Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, a collective of musical renegades that once included the colorful Lowell George.

It was George, whose lyrics told tales of the weird from the wonderfully strange, twisted, dark heart of America, who founded Little Feat with bassist Roy Estrada,  drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Billy Payne after George was dismissed from the Mothers — there are differing accounts as to why he was dispatched — and Payne’s attempt to get a job with Zappa failed to materialize.

Running with a more eclectic crowd than many of its blues-fried peers, Little Feat drew universal acclaim for its self-titled debut and the equally adored follow-up, Sailin’ Shoes, in the early ’70s. Frustrated by commercial failure, the original lineup, which included Mothers’ bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Richie Hayward, formerly of Lowell’s previous band, The Factory, broke up. But, in 1972, the band reformed without Estrada, adding guitarist/vocalist Paul Barrere and percussionist Sam Clayton.

Other impressive feats of genre-hopping gymnastics, such as 1973’s Dixie Chicken and 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now would follow, before the group drifted in a more jazz-oriented direction and George’s songwriting contributions began drying up. The group would release one of the greatest live albums in rock history in 1978’s Waiting For Columbus. But, that triumph would be dimmed by news of George’s death in 1979 from a heart attack — possibly brought on by a prodigious drug habit.

The hard-working band rolled on, though, and now, Little Feat and friends have released Join The Band, which features some of the group’s greatest songs re-recorded with a host of guest stars, including Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Emmylou Harris and Bela Fleck, among others.

Goldmine: Join The Band features a number of Little Feat classics — from “Dixie Chicken” to “Sailin’ Shoes” to “Oh Atlanta” to “Fat Man In A Bathtub.” What prompted the band to remake these songs and how different are they from the originals?

Billy Payne: Well, let’s take “Fat Man…” as an example. We have Dave Matthews singing on that song and well, as all Little Feat records are, they’re really hard to define. We have on “Willin’” Brooks and Dunn singing on that one. Ronnie [Dunn] asked me, “So, is this a tribute record?” And I said, “No, it’s not. We’ve got other people singing songs with us. Some of the songs we’ve written. Others we haven’t. We’re all over the map on this thing.”

So, when Dave Matthews got a hold of “Fat Man in A Bathtub,” he originally wanted to sing “Willin.’” I said that I had somebody else in mind for that. ‘Would you mind singing ‘Fat Man…”? And he jumped on board. He put down 18 vocals — backgrounds, leads, harmonies with himself.

The next day he was, I think, appearing on the David Letterman Show, and he had darn near blown [his vocal chords]. (laughs). It was just some amazing stuff that he did. That song, by the way, we recorded it down in Buffett’s studio down in Florida down in Key West at a place called Shrimp Boat Sound; that’s where we recorded License to Chill. I wa

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