Many rock historians (a rather portentous title for people who write about their favorite bands for a living, but what can you do?) tend to gravitate toward narrative extremes. Either the chronicle of a performer is a tale of unabashed triumph over a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or it's a tragedy in which the subject's talent (and often the subject himself) withers and dies in the face of ignorance, misunderstanding, disloyalty, greed, substance abuse and/or the misalignment of the planets.
But, Behind the Music to the contrary, the lives and careers of musicians, like the lives and careers of the rest of us, are seldom so easily explained -- and Little Feat, a largely forgotten but once inspired major-label cult act celebrated in Hotcakes & Outtakes, a four-CD set just issued on the Warner Archives/ Rhino imprint, is an apt example.
In the voluminous liner notes that accompany the new box, veteran journalist Bud Scoppa casts the combo in the most flattering light possible, portraying its founder and leader, Lowell George, as a shambling genius, his premature demise (of a 1979 heart attack likely spurred by accelerating obesity and his frequently advertised fondness for drugs) as the snuffing out of a star at its peak intensity, and his bandmates' eventual decision to carry on under the old name as proof that the outfit's magic could stand up to even the Grim Reaper's most lethal scythe work. Too bad the evidence presented on Hotcakes calls most of these contentions into question. George was indeed a unique and gifted performer, but these attributes were ultimately watered down by commercial considerations and a tendency toward giving in when he should have been standing fast. His decision over time to cede more and more album space and authority to Feat cohorts Paul Barrère and Bill Payne -- sporadically clever songwriters, yet not on George's level -- was symptomatic not only of the pitfalls of musical democracy, but also of a more wide-ranging creative withdrawal that even afflicted Thanks I'll Eat it Here, the solo album George issued just after leaving Little Feat (and shortly before his death); its slack nature showed that the artistic shortfalls of his latter period couldn't all be pinned on a band that changed beneath him. Finally, the sounds made by the survivors, while marked by excellent musicianship and more intelligence than most of their fellow graybeards can manage, is light-years away from capturing what was best about Little Feat. It's heartening that they haven't surrendered, but it would be more so if their biggest accomplishment was something other than keeping up with those mortgage payments.
That's not to imply that the Little Feat story is somehow uninteresting or unworthy. Far from it: George churned out plenty of gems during his decade or so in the public eye, and the manner in which his work slowly declined says more about the dangers lurking beneath the seductive surface of the Los Angeles music scene during the 1970s than "Hotel California" ever could. He was able to check out -- permanently -- but only after making the sort of compromises that prevented him from becoming all he might have been. And as Hotcakes' highlights demonstrate, he might have been great.
George grew up an L.A. kid (he even attended Hollywood High), and by the time he'd decided he could make a living with his singing, songwriting and guitar playing, he was exceedingly familiar with the opposite poles of the city's musical environment: the sophisticated professionalism encouraged by the record companies based there, and the anarchic vibe put out by those rebelling against the vapidity and superficiality of a culture based on celebrity worship. From the beginning, he kept feet in both camps, playing the flute in sessions for Frank Sinatra as a teen, only to later hook up with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the antithesis of SoCal slick.
But Zappa eventually sent him packing: According to Bill Payne, quoted in Scoppa's notes, the suggestion that George might be happier elsewhere came after Lowell penned "Willin'," a truck-driving anthem whose mentions of "weed, whites and wine" offended Zappa's no-dope, down-with-hippies sensibilities. Shortly thereafter, George assembled Little Feat, whose first squad featured drummer Richie Hayward, with whom he'd worked in a short-lived collective dubbed the Factory, plus keyboardist Payne and bassist Roy Estrada, another Mothers refugee. Their first disc, 1971's Little Feat, represented on Hotcakes by two swell efforts, "Strawberry Midnight" and "Hamburger Midnight," sported rough-hewn production (by Russ Titleman), eccentric structures, skewed lyrics and George's idiosyncratic vocals and slide work.
The result was a bracing collection of American miniatures that didn't sell squat -- so George and company began looking for ways to make their offerings more accessible. The subsequent Sailin' Shoes (1972) was notably more sleek and FM friendly thanks to producer Ted Templeman, who had turned the Doobie Brothers into a reliable hit machine, but George chipped in, too, penning digestible pop nuggets like "Easy to Slip," retooling "Willin'," which had appeared in a rougher version on the preceding platter, and generally attempting to convince the mainstream that Little Feat belonged. George's abilities were such that most of the tracks worked well, despite the appeasements, and the act kept a few curve balls in its arsenal -- most notably "Teenage Nervous Breakdown," a wonderfully witty burst of pre-punk that, unfortunately, appears on Hotcakes in a jam-happy 1976 live rendition and a tentative demo.
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But again, sales were modest, prompting Estrada to split, and the addition of second guitarist Barrère and the funky combo of bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton fundamentally changed Little Feat. Suddenly the succinct tunesmithing of the first two albums was supplanted by arrangements that allowed room for improvisation. The transition wasn't an immediate one: 1973's Dixie Chicken is still a relatively tight affair, with George compositions like "Fat Man in the Bathtub" and the ultra-witty title track adding immeasurably to what is probably the group's most consistent long-player, and 1974's Feats Don't Fail Me Now, recorded after a brief breakup, has strong George moments such as the sparkling "Spanish Moon." But the balance of power in the band was shifting, and so was the sound, which was taking on an almost jazz-fusion flavor.
The move expanded the group's audience among Deadheads (George wound up producing one Dead disc, 1978's Shakedown Street), but as the group's fortunes rose, its main man retreated. George made comparatively few contributions to 1975's The Last Record Album and 1977's Templeman-produced Time Loves a Hero, allowing Barrère and Payne to dominate, and the majority of the tunes he supplied for these salvos, including "Long Distance Love" and "Mercenary Territory," had a somewhat juiceless quality about them. Although the band's growing renown led to friendship with and adoration by the Linda Ronstadt crowd (Payne, especially, became a studio favorite among her clique), not to mention a taste of the success for which George had long hungered, it also left him strangely unsatisfied. He stuck around through Waiting for Columbus, a 1978 live package that solidified Little Feat's in-concert rep, but bailed during the sessions for the tepid, patchwork Down on the Farm in favor of a solo gambit too strenuous for his heart to handle.
It takes the first two discs of Hotcakes to cover this period, and if the song selection sometimes seems to include more ditties by Barrère and Payne than is strictly necessary to accentuate the thesis that Little Feat was more than George, it still provides a decent overview. But the decision to devote all of the third CD to comeback recordings canned between 1988 and 1998 goes much too far in trying to prop up this highly questionable argument. Former Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller, who was hired to fill the large vacancy in the lineup, does a decent job of aping George on cuts such as "Hate to Lose Your Lovin'" and "Let it Roll," but his impression wears thin quickly. Worse are the tracks helmed by Fuller's successor, Shaun Murphy, who alternately sounds like a faux Janis Joplin and a bogus Bonnie Raitt. At such times, today's Little Feat emerges as a highly competent bar band. There's no shame in that, of course, but neither is there a reason to set off fireworks. And while the fourth disc, labeled "Studio Artifacts," contains some curios that will rev up the true believers, the most entertaining items -- "Lightning-Rod Man," a Factory session produced by Zappa, the Howlin' Wolf-inspired blues of "Rat Faced Dog" and the impassioned "Juliet," which became "Juliette" on Dixie Chicken -- are the ones magnetized before George became worried about popular indifference or ground down by band politics. On them, he's simply making music for the hell of it, and it shows.
The spark that George gave to Little Feat had been dimming for some time before it finally went out, and in the twenty-plus years since then, the rest of the band has been unable to rekindle it. Hotcakes & Outtakes, like so many other pieces of historical revisionism clogging the marketplace these days, tries to tell a different story, but the real one's still in there. You just have to look for it.