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Off the Beaten Tracks: Pipe down, Elton, we can’t hear Lowell George

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The first time I saw Little Feat in concert was on January 15, 1975, at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. They were part of the Warner Brothers Music Show, a tour featuring some of the label’s major attractions including the Doobie Brothers. On this particular evening the bill comprised Montrose, Tower of Power and finally the Feat, led by the incomparable singer-guitarist Lowell George.

My friend Rosie and I were enjoying George’s vocals on one of the quieter numbers when we became annoyed by a bloke in the row behind us who insisted on singing along at the top of his voice. Eventually Rosie turned round and gave him a basilisk glare. Elton John, for it was he, wisely shut up. He remained silent, surrounded by an entourage including his band members Davey Johnstone (with waist-length blond locks) and Nigel Olsson, finally leaving quietly during the encore before the lights went up. It seemed a humbly low-key departure until we saw that he had E L T O N in glittery letters on the back of his little fur jacket.

I watched Little Feat perform live a further couple of times, but always felt they played too quickly on the rockier tunes in an attempt to get the crowd going. They were at their best, I feel, in the studio where they conjured up an irresistible blend of George’s slide guitar over a mid-tempo, laid-back, rolling beat. And then there were the brilliant slower numbers.

The band was formed in Los Angeles in 1969 by George and keyboard player Bill Payne. George had been a member of Frank Zappa’s group the Mothers of Invention but, legend has it, was asked to leave after writing Willin’, a song about weed, pills and lorry drivers. Zappa was and remained extremely anti-drugs. Joined by drummer Ritchie Hayward and former Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, the band released their eponymous debut album in January 1971. Little Feat is a reference to George’s small shoe size, with Feet changed to Feat in an apparent salute to the Beatles. Willin’ is the standout track, a classic piece of Americana:

I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonapah.

George was unable to play the slide part owing to a hand injury allegedly sustained during an altercation with a model aeroplane. Ry Cooder deputises with aplomb.

The same song appears reworked and much improved on the second album, Sailin’ Shoes, and is the highlight along with the title track. This was the Feat’s first LP sleeve to be illustrated by the idiosyncratic artist Neon Park, who went on to supply many more.

Estrada left at this point to join Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, signalling a major change of direction for the Feat from quirky blues numbers to a funkier, New Orleans-influenced sound. Kenny Gradney replaced Estrada, Paul Barrere came in as second guitarist and Sam Clayton joined on percussion.

The result was album three, 1973’s Dixie Chicken. It includes another great Lowell George slow number, Roll Um Easy, and the rhythmic Fat Man in the Bathtub, and saw the Feat’s audience expand greatly.

By the following year, and the album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, the band’s sound had fully developed. Swampy, effortless, sublime on songs such as Rock & Roll Doctor, Down The Road and Spanish Moon.

Next comes my favourite, 1975’s The Last Record Album. All That You Dream and Mercenary Territory, which includes the never-to-be-repeated line I’m temporarily qualmless and sinking, are excellent. Best of all is Long Distance Love, Lowell George at his apogee. I remember John Peel saying at the time that it was worth the price of the album just to hear the way George sings the words ‘missing persons’, and I know what Peel meant.

By 1977, and Time Loves A Hero, George’s influence was declining while Payne was leading the group into the dreaded jazz-rock zone – abandon taste all ye who enter here. There are a couple of decent tracks, notably a version of Terry Allen’s New Delhi Freight Train, but the moment had passed.

While George made some contributions to what would become Down On The Farm, and a live album, Waiting For Columbus, he was tiring of the project. His personal problems with binge eating, drugs and alcohol did not help and his weight ballooned to over 300lb, leading his friend Jackson Browne to describe him as ‘the Orson Welles of rock’. I have already mentioned in a previous column George’s shivers-down-the-back contribution to Browne’s Your Bright Baby Blues.

George released a short solo LP, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, which mainly comprised cover versions although there is a fine original, Twenty Million Things.

It was while touring to promote the album that he collapsed in his motel room in Arlington, Virginia, and died of a heart attack on June 29, 1979. He was just 34. An accidental cocaine overdose was blamed although a fellow musician blamed it on George having just devoured an entire giant-sized pizza with all the toppings which he refused to share with anyone else. His ashes were taken to Los Angeles and scattered from his fishing boat into the Pacific.

His daughter, Inara, was days away from her fifth birthday. She is now a singer too. Jackson Browne wrote Of Missing Persons for her soon after the loss of her father.

As for the rest of the band, they kept touring and releasing albums into the 21st century with changing personnel, but for me Little Feat without Lowell George is like a margarita with no tequila, and this is where the story ends.

alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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