JACKSON, Wyo. — Little Feat is indomitable; the band’s sound, timeless. Collectively, the core sextet transcends boundaries of California rock, New Orleans swamp boogie, earthy rock, greasy funk, folk, jazz, country, gritty blues and beyond. This rich musical gumbo was brilliantly showcased with the 1978 release of a seminal live album, Waiting for Columbus, which touches on songs from all six of the studio albums that Little Feat released between 1971 and 1977. The pioneering band, which formed in 1969, has been celebrating the 45th anniversary of the album with an extended tour. They will take stage this Friday at the Center Theater to a sold out room.
Little Feat’s local history includes at least four previous concerts in Teton County: 7/9/95 at Snow King Arena, 8/10/2002 and 9/2/2004 at the Mangy Moose, and 7/17/2011 at the 7th Annual Targhee Music Festival. A fervent fanbase combined with varying song choices from tour to tour, show to show, those setlists (as well as some show notes) can be found at Featbase.net. (Urban legend also suggests a Bonnie Raitt concert in the late ’70s at the Mangy Moose in which Little Feat co-founder, the late Lowell George, sat-in for most of the show.)
Little Feat’s current lineup includes co-founder Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Sam Clayton (percussion, vocals)—members since 1972; Fred Tackett (guitars, trumpet, vocals), a member since 1988; along with newcomers Scott Sharrard (guitars, vocals) and Tony Leone (drums) who joined in 2019 and 2020, respectively. According to Payne, the band was founded on the notion of being able to augment the lineup as necessary based on the music being presented.
Payne—a resident of Paradise Valley, Montana—has had a stellar career outside of the Feat as well, appearing on countless recordings with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, Stevie Nicks, The Doobie Brothers, and co-writing with Robert Hunter (The Grateful Dead) and Charlie Starr (Blackberry Smoke). Payne was kind enough to lend a half hour of his time to discuss the past, the present, and the everlasting flame of the Feat.
Buckrail/Aaron Davis: Do you have any memories of past shows in the Tetons?
Bill Payne: Yeah, I think we played the Mangy Moose twice. Rowdy crowd, it was tight and the place was packed. It’s nice to get such a solid reaction from people. It’s a two-way street in terms of performance, of how it’s bouncing back to us from the audience.
Buckrail/Aaron Davis: Waiting for Columbus is one of my favorite records and a major influence on me and so many others as a songwriter/musician. It’s such a treat for Feat fans to hear in it’s entirety on this tour. To make the album originally, several shows were recorded in the U.K. and U.S. during the 1977 summer tour, and the Tower of Power horn section backed you guys for some of those. What stands out the most from that run of shows and the release of the record?
Bill Payne: When the record came out, it kind of took us by surprise to be honest. (Especially) as the notoriety of the record over the years continued into iconic status. We did do some overdubs, though Richie and I’s performances were as they appeared with the exception of “Dixie Chicken,” which I cobbled together a couple of performances for the solo. But I don’t think anything was lost despite the overdubs.
The warm-ups that are on this new package of Waiting for Columbus, the re-release by Warner, are interesting to check out. The recordings that are done in Manchester, England are done without the horns. You get to hear the band with and without horns, and the foundation that’s already there is pretty phenomenal. I left in some of my whacky vocals [laughs]. I’m singin’ pretty good these days but back in the day it was hit-and-miss for me. I really had to grow into it. When you are singing against people like Lowell, forget intimating…
Buckrail/Aaron Davis: Yeah, Lowell’s phrasing is out of this world.
Bill Payne: It is. If I didn’t know you were a musician already, I would have known it based on what you just said. That’s where I think Lowell’s genius was, was his phrasing. Not only as a vocalist but as a player. He really had it all. I’m writing a memoir and thinking about how to approach sharing with people Lowell’s best side, such as investigating his phrasing in certain songs. “Rock and Roll Doctor,” for example, is a great tune. He used to edit these songs with a razor blade, splicing a cassette tape. It was like building a ship in a bottle. Then he’d give me the tape to check out and it would be a little uneven [laughs].
Lowell was a fascinating character. The legacy we have with Little Feat—with Richie (Hayward), with Paul Barrere, with Lowell George—we’re mindful of that every time we hit the stage, and we should be. I think what we’re carrying up there and playing is one thing, where we’re going to take this thing in the future is another thing, but they all tie into that legacy. And we’re writing songs for another record.
Buckrail/Aaron Davis: How has it been revisiting this record with the current lineup?
Bill Payne: Coming back to Jackson Hole, there’s a lot that people can look forward to. We’ve really got a terrific, cohesive band right now and even more energy, if that’s possible, and I think it is. So Jackson will be catching us at a really good time. Playing Waiting for Columbus, while not that easy (musically), is a treat for us as much as the audience. There’s so much of a rich history of Little Feat’s music in there. We’re not replicating the performance of the record, we’re (more-or-less) replicating how the album was laid out, track-wise, and then adding to it some, such as “Skin it Back” which was not on the original release.
John Coltrane talked about, toward the end of his life, one of the bands he had put together. He just said, this iteration is really, really good. That doesn’t denigrate anything that came before it, just that he was very satisfied and happy with where he was. I really feel the same way with Little Feat in the context that we’re working now. It points to a future. If you have the ability to improvise rather than replicate what you’ve done, a jazz mindset as we have, then playing the same song so many times over the years can take on a different life. That’s they beauty of being creative. It’s really a gift.
I’ll be 74 in March and I might as well be 24 when I’m playing music. The physical is…you can’t throw it to the side and ignore it, but it’s not always the thing that takes you out of the game. The mental part of it is a lot happier (performing) depending on how dire you physical condition is. I’m doing great and I’m having a ball.
Center for the Arts presents Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus Tour with special guest Nicki Bluhm, 7 p.m. Friday at the Center Theater. Sold out. jhcenterforthearts.org.