Little Feat were one of the most interesting bands of the seventies. They had an element of classic (as it became) Southern rock a la Allmans to them, but they also incorporated other American sounds into their mix – funk, New Orleans boogie woogie, gospel, a bit of country. A similar approach to The Band, I suppose, but drawing on a more contemporary version of Americana. They sold tolerably well at the time without ever seeming to crack the big time and despite touring consistently and building a reputation as a live act.
This live album, acclaimed on it’s release as one of the finest ever of that type, comes at a cusp in their career. The band had six albums to their name and thus depth in material. They were at the top of their game as a live act and starting to expand their sound in interesting directions.
But founder and erstwhile kingpin (also principle songwriter and singer and distinctive slide guitarist) Lowell George was starting to resent the way that keyboard player Bill Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere were asserting themselves and trying to steer the band in a jazzier direction. He was starting to feel less than central to what had been his own band.
Simultaneously (more or less) other band members fell out with George and/or his attitude and his desire to release records under his own name (which would mean questions about whether Feat were getting his best material).
Reportedly there are live bootlegs from this period in which drummer Richie Hayward can be heard changing the lyrics of the chorus of the trucker’s anthem “Willin’” from “I’ll be willin’” to “I’ll be fucked up” – an on-stage needling of the one-time El Supremo. Maybe a bit of unhappiness and angst does make for good music.
You can fill in with your own pet theory about discontent as a driver of strong art. Certainly the the tensions within the band seemed to fuel them for a short while before pulling them apart.
This though is not readily apparent listening to this live disc. They sound very together, very unified. There have been suggestions over the years that George would leave the stage for the newer material that, so the suggestions continue, he didn’t care for and in wich he had no part to play. but on the basis of this album I don’t buy that. You can always hear him playing.
That said the album is not entirely unvarnished, and there’s a debate to be had as to exactly how “live” it is. Certainly George redid most of his vocals later on in the studio and some of the guitar tracks were touched up. But all of this is underpinned by the energy and excitement of the live performance.
I’m not singling out Little Feat here, by the way. Several allegedly live albums have a degree of re-recording or editing. There were many claims and counterclaims about how “live” Thin Lizzy’s famous live album was. Frank Zappa often blurred the line between “live” and “in studio”. And many bands these play to a click track. Pre-recorded parts are not unheard of (nor unheard) – how do you think U2 reproduce their studio recordings so completely with just four of them on stage? There’s a continuum with absolutely unaided, unedited live performance at one end and imitative nightclub singers performing to canned backing tracks at the other. Joan Armatrading’s recent tour was advertised as “solo” with some small print explaining that some use would be made of pre-recorded backing tracks at certain points in the show.
I’ll leave you to decide exactly where on that line you drive a peg into the ground and say “no further”, but there’s a school of thought that still finds practical application that says that the way to make a great record is have the band lay down the basic tracks live and then overdub solos and vocals. The idea being that the excitement and natural slight advances and retardations of tempo will permeate what ever gets overlaid and thus result in a more natural sounding, more exciting record. There have even been cases of cutting to the chase and simply recording the new material live on stage (EG Joe Jackson’s Big World album).
You certainly get extra excitement here. Nearly all of the band’s key songs are performed, but with an extra kick up the jacksy and some extended arrangements. Little Feat had previously used the excellent Tower of Power horn section on records, and for this tour they had them on stage as well. This fattened up the sound and extended the possibilities, and they cleverly take advantage of the extra firepower yet leave the songs recognizable and essentially intact. So “Dixie Chicken” breaks down in the middle and hands over to a dixieland horn arrangement and Payne’s New Orleans style piano; George’s slide guitar solo on “Mercenary Territory” gets extra wings courtesy of the horns.
What I particularly enjoyed about this album is the band’s great feel for dynamics – which is only heightened by the horn arrangements. They don’t overplay, which means they always have a gas pedal to stomp on for effect when needed. In particular George and Barrere integrate their guitars well and often hang back a bit and let the unflagging rhythm section and the always excellent Payne carry proceedings. Even when they solo it’s seldom wig out time – especially George whose slide solos burn slowly but are well constructed and unerringly effective.
Payne gets in some big solos and they’re always full of interesting twists and turns, light and shade. When he uses his synthesizer he manages to avoid both the pop-corny sounds that often came out of synths in the seventies and the cheesy imitations of other instruments. It’s a rich, thrilling sound – his own, not an imitation of something else. His solo on the opening “Fat Man In The Bath Tub” makes great use of the synth, builds to a thrilling climax and provides real excitement and power very early on.
They strike a balance: Well worked out and rehearsed on one the one hand (the horns come in on cue every time – which means there are cues – but not polished to the point of boring shininess. They left the edges on the music.
I’ve had various Feat albums on vinyl and tape over the years, and I couldn’t tell you where any of them are now (and I really liked The Last Record Album) but as I said, unless you’re a completist, (a sad species that I can’t take a pot shot at because I am one myself, just not a Feat completist) this is all the Feat you need – the best performances of their best songs. Forget any “greatest hits” type compilations, it’s all here and with the excitement dial turned up beyond the studio albums.
Waiting For Columbus, then, is a document of Little Feat at a high water mark. The band is sure-footed and well integrated. They know what they’re about and they know how to do it and they’re still excited by it. They play with authority and confidence and vitality. But in this case the high water analogy is a better than usual fit because the tide was about to turn.
Feat didn’t last long after this tour. Waiting For Columbus was released in 1978. By mid ’79 they had broken up (Payne walked out after a show down with George) leaving an unfinished album behind. Two weeks later George, on the road to support his solo album, died in a hotel room. The remaining members finished the aborted album (released as Down On The Farm) and then called it a day. They reconvened a decade or so later with other players filling in for George, but they never again sounded as exciting and compelling as they do here.
PS: The work done in the studio was always to repair, never to add. The decision was taken to not add anything that wasn’t on stage. So there are REPLACED vocals but no EXTRA vocals.
PPS: There are different versions of this available with different running sequences. I’ve got the Rhino re-issue which seems to take the original double vinyl and swap what would have been sides two and three. This makes for a fine build up to a horn enriched “Spanish Moon” before the laid back valediction of “Willin'” and then the encores. But it has a number of bonus tracks that are interesting but also out of sequence. You can save money by buying the original set on iTunes – it’s cheaper than the re-issue and you can easily reshuffle the tracks. It must be said though that the physical Rhino set has better packaging with worthwhile liner notes.