Bill Payne set his phone on the piano and started playing for me when I called his Montana home. The room rang with a boisterous bass line under an agile melody, proving Payne doesn’t need help when he hits WAMC’s The Linda on Tuesday in his mixed-media show “Tracing Footsteps.”
He’ll have some anyway: His Little Feat band mate Gabe Ford will play drums, Connor Kennedy will guest at times, and Payne will accompany some songs with photographs projected from a laptop. With Little Feat on hiatus as guitarist Paul Barrere fights hepatitis, Payne is performing an autobiography in songs, sights and stories. Not just Little Feat songs: Payne has been writing new tunes, some with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter in a collaboration that almost wasn’t.
“The strength we share is we both think in cinematic terms,” said Payne, a Hunter fan since he first heard Hunter’s words to the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Payne said, “He writes great lyrics, and there’s a special place they take you to, right away.”
Yet when Grateful Dead manager Cameron Sears introduced them by phone, Payne found “he was a difficult guy to talk to, so I wasn’t sure we could write together.” Then Hunter sent Payne some lyrics. “I put some music to it and a melody and we were off and running,” Payne said. “Now we’re 15 songs deep into it.” (They’ve never met face to face; they collaborate online.)
Little Feat recorded four Hunter and Payne songs on the 2012 album “Rooster Rag,” and Payne plays others in “Tracing Footsteps.” “I may play three Feat songs; things people haven’t heard before, or in a long time,” he said.
Payne will start Tuesday’s show solo. “I start with music and tell stories surrounding the songs,” he said. “I’ll put a Q&A into the first song segment and wind up with music, then I’ll come back with Gabe Ford, and show some photography. . . . It’s a loose evening, an intimate evening, and people are very surprised by how much of myself I share on stage.”
His stories span from his first band at 15 to chasing a gig with Frank Zappa — in vain, but he wound up forming Little Feat with Zappa alumnus Lowell George — to playing sessions, to making a solo album, “Cielo Norte,” with another in the works. Payne played with LA’s famed “Wrecking Crew” including drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye and guitarist Dean Parks. As a session player, “I was always going for the throat on whatever people asked me to do,” said Payne. His Yamaha grand piano — the one he played for me over the phone — he first got to play on Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham.”
Fans may ask about scandalous road stories, but Payne mainly talks music. “People ask if it was all as crazy as it was promoted to be, and I say, ‘You bet, and then some: Use your imagination.’ ”
“People ask some good questions; we have some very astute fans and friends, and I appreciate their ability to understand our music,” he said. “Little Feat is a very keyboard- and slide guitar-oriented band,” noting the iconic keyboard parts to “Willin’,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and “Dixie Chicken.”
He said, “I’ve played with some top-rate, world-class drummers who couldn’t play ‘Dixie Chicken.’ ” Gabe Ford can, a veteran of the Ford family blues band with his guitarist uncle Robben Ford. “If Gabe wanted to play with the family band, he had to learn to play a shuffle first,” said Payne. “It’s like my experience, playing Chopin etudes first before I played anything else.”
Music for the eyes
The eye-music that Payne plays with photography began with a point-and-shoot camera and watching his son manipulate images in the computer. “I saw in the computer that the original image is like middle-C on the piano.”
He shoots landscapes, portraits and still lifes. He prefers dark images, but won’t set up a shot: He shoots the world as he finds it, then may change tones. “Some are like Ansel Adams, crystal clear, where everything is sharp,” he said. “Other ones are more painterly, like water colors, ethereal.” In “Tracing Footsteps,” Payne, 63, shows photos with songs, stories and poems.
He said, “I’m getting more confidence in my vocals and how to command a stage by myself.” He sees these next artistic steps as natural, even necessary. “Most of our lives, we search for a voice; then we tend to hold onto that voice,” he said. “But if the voice modulates, it gives more depth; and that’s what we should be doing.”
Bill Payne performs “Tracing Footsteps” on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at WAMC’s The Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany). Admission is $18. Phone 465-5233 ext. 4 or visit www.wamcarts.org.
Meanwhile, Connor Kennedy showcases his debut solo album on June 29 at Levon Helm Studios (160 Plochmann Lane, Woodstock) with the players on the debut album and others. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $50 (seated) and $20 (standing). Visit levonhelm.com/store/page4.html.
Father’s Day show
North Country compadres Dave Maswick and Joel Brown team up on Father’s Day (Sunday) at 3 p.m. at the Parting Glass (40-42 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs) to showcase their new albums.
Maswick’s “The News From Here” combines perfectionist craft with evocative vision to tremendously impressive effect: tuneful yet never obvious, personal but also inviting. Brown’s new album is “Places,” and he plays in the jazz-blues group Triple Play co-starring Chris Brubeck and teaches music at Skidmore. Maswick was Chevrolet Blotto, an early member of Albany’s best-known rockers after the Knickerbockers; and now plays with the Stony Creek Band and makes jewel-like solo albums.
After a short opener by MaryLeigh Roohan, Maswick and Brown will play together, backed by Steve Candlen, Brian Melick, Don Young, Hank Soto, Mike Lomaestro and others. Their 90-minute show will feature a mid-set acoustic run of solo and duo songs. Admission is free. Phone 583-1916 or visit www.partingglasspub.com.
Also in Saratoga Springs, guitarist George Cole leads his old-school jazz band into Caffe Lena (47 Phila St.) on Friday at 8 p.m. Rather than Americana, their sound is dubbed “Eurocana,” blending Gypsy jazz and vintage swing in string-powered arrangements. Admission is $18, $15 for Caffe members, $9 for children under 13. Red Tail Ring opens. Phone 583-0022 or visit www.caffelena.org.