In photo: Little Feat in 1988 at the Palace: Bill Payne, keyboards; Fred Tackett, guitar; Craig Fuller, guitar and vocals; Sam Clayton, percussion; Richie Hayward (obscured), drums; Paul Barrere, guitar and vocals; Kenny Gradney, bass.
Any band that rocks for 50 years faces many forks in the road. They either become human jukeboxes, like the Beach Boys, who change players but play the hits the same way for decades. Or they evolve as self-renewing creative forces, like NRBQ who play new songs and re-imagine the old ones.
Little Feat lives on the creative side of that particular fork, celebrating 50 years of funky rock Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (30 Second St.).
Founded the year “Abbey Road” hit (see Jukebox), the durable quintet features original keyboardist Bill Payne plus longtime guitarists Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton, plus new drummer Gabe Ford, replacing the late Richie Hayward.
“Everybody in the band is so accomplished that we can manage to fit in with six guys playing all at once,” said Barrere by phone the same August night Payne played SPAC with the Doobie Brothers. Barrere explained how skill and space power the band past breaks (or break-ups).
Little Feat survived the deaths of Hayward (2010) and founder Lowell George (1979), then the short-term tenures of singers Craig Fuller and Shaun Murphy. “We have a way of creating space that allows everybody to have a voice,” said Barrere. Recalling how the late, great Art Neville explained the Nevilles’ “secret groove” to me years ago, I asked, “You mean: what you don’t play?” Barrere said, “That’s exactly right.”
In 1972, “I was brought in to play second guitar, mostly,” he said, “rhythm and some lead stuff, and do some background vocals.” This supporting role didn’t last long, as leader and main writer Lowell George “told me and Billy we could become more prolific and write more, sing more and play more.” Until then, Little Feat had been very much George’s band. “He wrote some great, great songs,” said Barrere, “but that can only go on so long because it’s a real weight on your shoulders; and he realized the potential Billy and myself had as writers.” He added, “That’s an amazing thing, when leaders can pull something like that off and not let their ego get in the way.”
Also in 1972, Lousiana-born Gradney replaced founding bassist Roy Estrada; like George, Estrada played in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Now the band cruised L.A.-style but also grew a new beat like a Mardi Gras parade or a late set at Tipitina’s. They arena-rocked through the ’70s as funky new tunes from their classic “Dixie Chicken” (1973), “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” (’74), “The Last Record Album” (’75), “Times Loves a Hero” (’77) and “Waiting for Columbus” – one of rock’s greatest live albums – followed early George-penned faves including “Willin’,” “Trouble” and “Tripe Face Boogie.”
Even the hiatus after George’s death didn’t feel permanent. “We had already had so many break-ups, literally,” said Barrere, who soon recorded two solo albums. “I got the Dixie Dregs as my backup band, and that’s not a bad thing,” he understated. “Unfortunately, as Lowell used to say, that stuff was too hip for the room, and the records didn’t sell.” Several Feat players, including Barrere, also guested on jazz giant drummer Chico Hamilton’s “The Master” album.
Barrere said, “After Lowell’s passing, we had gone our own separate ways. But every time one of us would play – Billy was playing with Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne (and Hayward toured with Joan Armatrading) and I was tromping around the South on the chitlin circuit playing the blues – people would yell for Little Feat (songs). So we had this neat jam session and out of that came the idea of putting the band together and we made ‘Let It Roll’ (’88).” They added singer Craig Fuller (ex-Pure Prairie League). “He had a haunting feel,” said Barrere. “He sounded at times so much like Lowell.” They played the Palace that year, a compelling comeback, then returned with singer Shaun Murphy to play the Empire State Plaza (’99), then The Egg (’17), among other hot local shows.
However, cancer struck both Barrere and Hayward. “When my health went downhill – I first had Hep-C, then that went into cancer and I had treatment for that – I couldn’t tell the guys not to go out with other people,” said Barrere, noting side gigs by Little Feat members, especially Payne. “Bill lives in hotels,” laughed Barrere. “I’ve never seen a man go on the road so much!” Barrere added, “Once I started feeling better, I started doing duet stuff with (Feat guitarist) Fred (Tackett), and we even played (the Van Dyck) in Schenectady.”
When Hayward died in 2010, Little Feat found a replacement in their own crew. “We just really needed to make sure that whatever drummer we got can cover all the bases,” he explained. “Gabe fits that bill perfectly. When he was our drum tech, he would sit right there behind Richie and see how all those parts were played. He plays the parts, but he also brings his own feel to it.”
Meanwhile (thanks, Stephen Colbert!), Little Feat songs and whole albums (16 studio releases and 17 live sets) keep rolling on their own. Barrere said Phish playing the Feats’ entire “Waiting for Columbus” album is among his favorite covers. “It’s nice having all these jam bands, like Gov’t Mule, Phish and Widespread Panic play a song or two of ours here and there because it kind of revamped our careers. Their fans became our fans.”
Fans will help celebrate Little Feat’s 50th anniversary Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (30 Second St.). 8 p.m. $79.50-$49.50; plus pricier VIP packages. 518-272-0038 www.troymusichall.org