Little Feat: As Good as a Thrill

For 50 years, Little Feat have been laying down irresistible grooves. A band’s band, their fans include Bob Dylan, members of the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band, and Phish, who often feature “Spanish Moon” in their sets and played the entire Waiting for Columbus live album on Halloween in 2010.

Despite the strong influences whose torch they’ve carried and the strong influence they’ve  inspired in generations of rockers, Little Feat are not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an oversight fans wrestle with every October when a new list of nominees is revealed. Yet, that’s not going to stop them from enjoying the band’s 50th anniversary tour, which includes stops on March 8 at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, and March 9 at Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood. The Beacon show will include an opening set by Larry Campbell and the Midnight Ramble Band, and a guest appearance by Connor Kennedy, a New York musician with whom co-founding Feat vocalist-keyboardist Bill Payne has worked frequently.

Payne, Little Feat’s only original member, spoke in the following interview about the band’s anniversary, influence, and legacy, as well as his moonlighting as the keyboardist in the Doobie Brothers.

As a founding member, what has been the main thing about Little Feat that has brought you the most joy during the past 50 years?

I would say that the connection between our music and other bands, large and small…. The Rolling Stones [came to see us] in Amsterdam in 1975. We’ve had a good influence on other musicians and other bands. The same things have rolled into us as well. One of the things Lowell [George, Little Feat former guitarist/vocalist] talked about in the ’60s was the idea of not being a household name. That would not be necessary, or to make hit records, but to impact the musical community. We’ve certainly done that, and it’s very gratifying.

It’s been great to see so many young music fans get turned onto the band because they’re fans of Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, and so many others Little Feat have influenced. For that reason and others, comment on why Little Feat should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

I can think of several reasons, not least of which, Little Feat, like other bands, encompass the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. The rules of playing music don’t always apply. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s about a spirit of creativity, freeness, a youthfulness that’s not tied to age. I think Little Feat hit a lot of those categories and our influence is huge. For 50 years, we’ve been carrying a torch for something that is really vital to people and music. Little Feat is bigger than anybody in this band, including Lowell George, but inclusive of everything we’ve done collectively since Lowell passed away and where we’re going in the future. We’re on our fifth generation now. That should be recognized. Not that I’m pining to be in the Hall of Fame, but I know our fans would love for us to be in there.

Will Little Feat be releasing a 50th anniversary box set or anthology, or is there a studio album in the works?

We’re hoping to. I don’t know if an album is the type of thing that people want these days. We might make three to six tracks and release them. If we cut three to six songs, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to do another four songs and create an album. It’s just with the business side, who would want to release it? Those are the kinds of questions we have. The business doesn’t come first. The music does, so we’ll see. I’ve written 20 songs with Robert Hunter and written four songs with Paul Muldoon, and I’ve got at least 25 to 30 others.  

How did you hook up with Hunter?

I never met him. We did it all over the Internet. The guy is obviously the best lyricist in the world. Sometimes I send him music, sometimes he sends me lyrics. The music is in the lyrics, but it takes a composer to draw it out.

Is it accurate to say that you actually tour more with The Doobie Brothers these days than Little Feat? Why is that?

I do tour with the Doobies. That’s the band I have an allegiance to these days for the simple reason that Little Feat in the last six or eight years haven’t done lot a touring. Before the Doobie Brothers, I did a brief stint with Leftover Salmon, a band from Colorado. I loved playing with those guys. I’ve played with the Doobies since 1972. I’ve done a couple of tours with them. It’s financial security for my family. And I’m happy to be a part of their family. I got lucky in that they are allowing me to schedule touring with Little Feat for the 50th anniversary. I’m blessed to have Little Feat and always will be, and I’m proud of my work with the Doobies.

In 2017, members of Feat and the Doobies performed together in Playing for Change’s We Are One Concert. And, of course, you were label mates on Warner Bros. who must have performed or at least jammed together now and then in the ’70s. But have Little Feat toured with The Doobie Brothers since you joined the Doobies’ touring band in 2015 or are there any plans to?

I would do that in a heartbeat. I would love to see that happen whether it’s a tour or a few gigs. If I could wave a magic wand, I would combine forces.

My favorite live album is Waiting for Columbus, especially your magical piano solo on “Dixie Chicken.” Out of all the feedback you’ve gotten about that performance over the years, which has meant the most to you and why? 

Such an iconic record, I’ve run into a few players over the years who’ve said, ‘When I was a kid, I listened to that record. My mother brought me to a concert, and now I’m a keyboard player playing in this band.’ That’s pretty cool. The impact of what we were doing registered with people. It motivated them and inspired them. That’s the way I felt about Ray Charles, the Stones and Little Richard. It’s very humbling and gratifying.

While Little Feat originated out of Southern California, I’ve always thought you sounded more like a New Orleans band. Why and how have the sounds of New Orleans meant a lot to Little Feat?

Maybe these things come through the gene pool. I was born Waco, Texas, and my parents married in New Orleans. Kenny (Gradney, bassist) is from Southern California, but his parents had ties to New Orleans and Louisiana. I think Sam (Clayton, percussion) did, too. In terms of music, listening to blues and the blues resurgence in the ’60s, a lot came over with the Stones and the Yardbirds, a lot of English bands. But within that context, we were starting to hear other styles of music. One was Clifton Chenier…. Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey. It’s part of what made up our vocabulary. It’s like when children pick up Spanish or French. I have a granddaughter who’s 10 who speaks beautiful Spanish. I admire when people leave themselves open to influences, and that comes through food, books, language. It sets off areas of the world we want to see whether it be in our own backyard. Those things give life deeper, more enriching meaning. That comes out through music, and in this case, Little Feat was absorbing the music of New Orleans. That was a very small part of it but enough of it to throw it out to people. We were not from New Orleans, but why not play that? Just because you’re not from Hamburg, Germany, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play Beethoven. It’s what we brought to the table and how we expressed ourselves.

A band that reminds of Little Feat a lot is New Orleans Suspects. What did you think of their recent live tribute to Little Feat?  

It was a surprise for all of us. They asked me to sit in. We broke into “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley.”

What do you miss the most about Lowell George and why?

He was my mentor. I miss that guy I could sit and talk with and share hopes and dreams and aspirations. We could talk about anything under the sun: books, music. That’s what was important to us. I would have loved for that guy to continue that journey. He was such an incredible musician. The technique he used to play and to sing, his phrasing. His genius was in his phrasing, but he was also a terrific songwriter, a wonderful lyricist. Thankfully, we have what he left us. It’s a very challenging repertoire and such great stuff.

How and why has Little Feat been able to endure so long without Lowell?

It wasn’t all about Lowell. He didn’t write “Oh Atlanta,” “All that You Dream.” He didn’t write “Tripe Face Boogie.” A lot of the direction he didn’t come up with. It was a band, and within the band, we got a lot of input from a lot of different people. But with what he did contribute, it’s easier to look at one person rather than four or five or six or whatever it is. When you look at the Rolling Stones, most people focus on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and I said that in reverse order than most people would say it. But I was focusing on Brian Jones when he was in there and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. It took eight years to ask the question whether to attempt to do Little Feat without Lowell… and sure enough, the chemistry was there, and it still sounds like Little Feat.