Until about three years ago, none of the members of Little Feat thought that making a new studio album was a priority.
Since the release of 2003’s “Kickin’ It at the Barn,” the group’s last studio album before 2012’s “Rooster Rag,” the eclectic jam band has toured constantly. Many of the live shows have since been released on the group’s own Hot Tomato label. In 2008, the band rerecorded 15 of its back-catalog classics for “Join the Band,” which featured collaborations with longtime friends and admirers including Bob Seger, Dave Matthews and Jimmy Buffett.
“We had been on the road constantly for the past decade, so when everybody got time off, the last thing we wanted to do was sit and play on a studio record,” Paul Barrere, the band’s longtime guitarist, said recently from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. The band heads to The Egg Friday night.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
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“Everybody just wanted to have some time off. It was merely really a kind of a feeling shared by everybody. We’d been out there, working, working, working, so as soon as we get time off we breathe.”
Personnel changes — the first in nearly 16 years, a record length of time for the group — prompted the band to begin gearing up for a new record. Singer Shaun Murphy, who had brought a feminine vocal presence to the group in place of deceased founding member Lowell George, left at the beginning of 2009, making the band a six-piece for the first time since its original run in the late ’60s and ’70s. Later that same year, founding drummer Richie Hayward retired from performing because of liver disease; he died in August of 2010 and was officially replaced by his drum tech, Gabe Ford.
Today, the lineup consists of Barrere, Ford, founding keyboardist Bill Payne, percussionist Sam Clayton, bassist Kenny Gradney and multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett.
Formula that works
“When we changed back to a six-piece, we seriously said, ‘We’ve gotta get to a point where we’re doing more of that kind of material,’ ” Barrere said.
As a result, “Rooster Rag” is a harder rocking affair than the albums recorded with Murphy, with the sound harking back to the blues and roots-rock drenched albums the band recorded in its heyday.
“It took it down, back to more of our rootsy kind of stuff; there was less ballads and so forth,” Barrere said. “Shaun was great at singing the very ballad-like songs — she had a very high register, and so forth. This album was definitely a funkier process.”
“Rooster Rag’s” 12 songs are eclectic, with tracks like “Just a Fever” rocking harder than the band ever has. With that said, Barrere insists that the band isn’t reinventing the wheel, and audiences have been appreciative of the new material live.
“The cool thing about Little Feat is that we’ve never been accused of being pop music,” Barrere said. “So it seems like every record we do has a flavor similar to everything we’ve ever done — there’s not like any big, major steps in a new direction or anything like that. Basically, the new material is along the same eclectic veins Little Feat’s always used.”
The time away from the studio seemed to energize the band. One difference this time was that the band members more or less brought completed songs to the table, rather than working them out collaboratively. For four songs, including the album’s title track, Payne collaborated with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
“Originally this was going to be a blues record — there were quite a few blues covers we recorded initially, and a couple of those like ‘Candy Man Blues’ and ‘Mellow Down Easy’ made the cut,” Barrere said. “It was a pretty easy process this time. Once we get all the songs together, what we do in the arrangement phase is everybody gets the opportunity to add their own feel, their own thing to it. For the most part, you just play.”
This seems to have been the band’s philosophy in general throughout its career. It helps to keep things interesting on the road, as the band is constantly changing songs through years of jamming live. Many of these changes can be found on the new arrangements on “Join the Band,” which Barrere described as “very similar to going to the studio and playing a live show.”
“It’s always fun, because these songs have always been in metamorphosis, if you will,” Barrere said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to play songs like ‘Willin’ ’ or ‘Dixie Chicken.’ We’ve always had new flavors added and old flavors taken away. When you get in the studio to redo them, knowing that guest artists will be working on them, you do a few little extra special things. It brings out the creative juices.”
Since the album’s release last summer, the band has been moving full-steam ahead with shows, but it looks as if the momentum will be slowing a bit next year at least for Barrere. Following the band’s “Feat Fan Excursion” shows in Jamaica in early March, Barrere will be off the road for a year because of treatments to rid him of Hepatitis C, which he’s had since 1994.
“It’s a fairly debilitating treatment, so the doctors want me close in case of anemia or infections,” Barrere said. “It will be an interesting time, for six months of it. I don’t feel really bad — I’ve been dealing with it for years and years, and they finally thought it was a good time to treat the virus before the virus starts to mess with my liver too much. It’s just one of those things, I guess — the follies of a misspent youth.”
Barrere has been Little Feat’s guitarist and one of its primary songwriters since 1972, when George, a veteran of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, restructured the first lineup of the group. Clayton and Gradney joined the band at this time as well, and the lineup remained stable until George’s death of heart failure in 1979, releasing now-classic albums including 1973’s “Dixie Chicken” and 1974’s “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.”
After George’s death, the band members went their separate ways. In 1987, the classic lineup of Barrere, Clayton, Gradney, Hayward and Payne reunited, adding Tackett and new vocalist Craig Fuller to fill in George’s parts. Murphy came on board in 1993 after Fuller’s departure.
Through these various lineup changes and tragedies, the band has soldiered on. According to Barrere, it’s all because of the music, and the band’s fearless eclecticism.
“It was the cornerstone of what Lowell told me when I joined the band — ‘Rule number one is, there are no rules,’ ” Barrere said. “We’ll try any kind of music, any time, as long as we can perform it with some consistency and a genuine quality to it. There’s no need to even think about pigeonholing yourself into one spot — which I think in some regards hurt us in the early days. Record companies back then liked to have a pigeonhole to put you in.”