Kickin’ It At the Barn – Little Feat Down Upon the Suwannee River – Little Feat
Hot Tomato Records 0208
Hot Tomato Records 0206
This year has brought us two new releases from Little Feat, a band who has
continued to perform and record for nearly two decades since the death of
leader Lowell George in 1979. Like the Dead and the Allman Brothers Band,
the current version of Little Feat is both sustained and confined by the
past: they rely heavily in concert on familiar material from their heyday,
material that secures them an audience but which also constrains their
current identity. No band with a history as memorable and influential as
Little Feat wants to be one day thought of as a cover band, and this stigma
has nagged them since reuniting in the mid 1980s. The only way out of this
mess (other than to hang it up and pursue other musical endeavors) is to put
out new material and hope that there’s an audience ready to embrace it.
And so we have Kickin’ It at the Barn, an 11-track, 71-minute romp in
the sailin’ shoes of the seven-piece Little Feat. Everything you would
expect to find in a Feat release is here: hayride how-downs, barroom
rockers, slick and poppy SoCal jazz, N’awlins grooves and complex fusion
instrumentals. Vocalist Shaun Murphy, who has been with the band since
1995, asserts herself among the testosterone on the mysterious "I’d Be
Lyin’," but elsewhere she is relegated to supporting vocals and machismo
rules supreme. Vying for permanent places in the repertoire are the
(Mellen)campy "Heaven Forsaken," the rewarding instrumental "Stomp" and the
"Machine Gun"-esque "I Do What the Telephone Tells Me to Do." Guitarist
Paul Barrere flexes his muscles for us on the latter two, sharing the wealth
on "Stomp" with Payne and the rhythm section of Sam Clayton and Richie
Hayward, who provide much of the album’s subtler pleasures.
The centerpiece of the album, though, is "Corazones Y Sombras," a prototype
for the band’s eclecticism and, as it follows, the most idiosyncratic track
on Kickin’ It at the Barn. What begins as a Tex-Mex workout, led by
Bill Payne’s pitch-perfect accordion, shifts gears after five minutes,
morphing into a coda that is reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s "Sunrise"
(due in part to the vocals of Murphy), out of which emerges a Caribbean jam,
spiced by hammered dulcimer, that eventually erupts into a brassy mariachi
celebration, whoops and all. It is the kind of number that may initially
strike listeners as indulgent, but upon multiple listens becomes a track
that provides us with the greatest sense of anticipation — it forces one to
focus on the movement rather than the arrival; and only after there’s
nowhere left to go do we have the luxury of looking back and hooting about
how much fun the journey was.
Most impressive about Kickin’ It at the Barn is how little filler
there is. Lyrically, the band will probably never equal George’s output.
That said, the songs herein are well-crafted and structurally intriguing,
the playing is pitch-perfect, and the production is slick without being
slippery (which is not always the case with a Little Feat record).
Interestingly, the weakest track on the album, "In a Town Like This," is the
title track of an album from multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett. It’s an
uptempo bluesy rocker with evocative lyrics about the South that takes one
musical idea and never lets go. In another setting I could see it working,
but among the tracks on Kickin’, it comes off as rather puerile.
On the band’s other new release, a two-disc live set from 2000 entitled
Down Upon the Suwannee River, the casual listener will find an answer
as to why the current version of Little Feat, despite lackluster album
sales, hasn’t become a shadow of its former self. The band is still very
much interested in musical exploration, of both their "classic" and newer
material — and it has the chops to lend credibility to its efforts, like
the output or not. The 27 minute "Dixie Chicken" may be too much for some
— the bandmembers’ jazz tendencies get the best of them here, as Feat
follows each verse and chorus with lengthy solos and sometimes meandering,
sometimes linearly directed jams. Call it indulgent, if you want, but one thing
you can’t say is that the band is resting on the laurels of yesteryear.
Suwannee is the second live release in as many years for Little Feat,
covering much of the same ground as 2002’s Live at the Ram’s Head,
but offering listeners a complete show from the band rather than highlights
from a tour. This gives the album a better sense of continuity than Ram’s
Head, but it also tips the scale in favor of disc two, which culls together
some of Feat’s finest tracks. The set closes with a slow-as-molasses cover
of Dylan’s "It Takes a Lot to Laugh" and a standard "Oh Atlanta," followed
by a rewarding two-song encore of "Willin’" (George’s signature tune) and
"Fat Man in the Bathtub." The 70s material is so good that Feat shouldn’t
be blamed for relying on it, but I can’t help but wonder if the band holds
on to some of it merely to validate (for fans rather than skeptics) their
use of the name.
One benefit of having both Kickin’ It at the Barn and Down Upon
the Suwannee River is that listeners will be able to hear an improvement
in songwriting from the earlier post-George albums to the present.
Suwannee’s "Big Bang Theory," "Bed of Roses" and "Let it Roll," which are
fairly bland variations on the boogie-woogie Chicago blues theme, not only
suffer in comparison to George-era tracks like "Spanish Moon," "Lafayette
Railroad" and "Fat Man in the Bathtub," but also when put against new tracks
from Kickin like "Night on the Town" and "I Do What the Telephone
Tells Me to Do." Little Feat may never again reach the level of popular and
critical acclaim it achieved in the 70s but, with the accumulation of
quality new material and a continuing emphasis in concert on exploration
rather than reproduction, the band should find an audience. And many
younger listeners (particularly those in the jam scene) would be wise to
find the band next time it stops in their neck of the woods.