Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Waiting for Columbus

God save us from Little Feat fans. They are a large and fanatical tribe, and the music critic who says baleful things about their favorite band risks everything but a public lynching. I wrote a very positive review of one of the Feat’s early LPs a while back, and in said review took some potshots at their later-era work, accusing the band of smoothing off its rough edges, writing dull songs, and allotting keyboardist Bill Payne free rein to turn the group’s once freaky, roots-rich sound into a slick soup that bordered at times on jazz fusion. I would add I’m not alone—Robert Christgau said Payne’s synths “recall bad Rufus.” And while I have no idea what bad Rufus sounds like, I know an insult when I hear one.

I took aim at 1975’s The Last Record Album, 1977’s Time Loves a Hero, and 1979’s Down on the Farm, but I also directed abuse at the band’s legendary live album, 1978’s Waiting for Columbus. And that’s what sent the Little Feat horde into apoplexy. My recollection of the band’s first live LP was that it was good, but mortally wounded by both Payne’s synthesizers and general slickness. I said so, and what I received in response were dozens of posts from Feat freaks telling me in no uncertain terms that I was full of shit.

I vowed then to give Waiting for Columbus another listen, and having done so I stand by my original assessment. I don’t care if it’s considered one of the better live albums of the seventies; to me it’s the last gasp of a band that had been going downhill for years. Their later studio albums (meaning every LP after 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now) were polished in a way that no blues’n’boogie LP should be, and lacked good songs to boot. The sheer weirdness of their earlier LPs went the way of the dodo, to be replaced by the nondescript songs on, say, 1975’s so-so at best The Last Record Album. Songs like “Romance Dance” and the execrable and synth-dominated slice of jazz fusion that is “Day at the Dog Races” were a sad comedown from the days of “Oh, Atlanta” and “Dixie Chicken,” and seemed to signal both the desertion of Lowell George’s muse (his share of songwriting credits decreased dramatically post-1974) and the hijacking of the band’s rougher-edged grooves by the silky smooth synths of Bill Payne.

And all of this is evident on Waiting for Columbus, which includes some lackluster songs from the later albums and is altogether too slick, thanks in large part to Payne’s synthesizer. To cite just two examples—I’ll get to more later—Payne’s synthesizer solo on “All That You Dream” is an annoyance and a distraction, drawing attention away from George’s soulful lament, as captured in such doleful lines as, “I’ve been down/But not like this before.” The same goes for the bluesy and otherwise wonderful “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” which with its great percussion, George’s excellent slide guitar and inimitable growl, and cool backing vocals is copacetic until you toss Payne’s synthesizer into the mix, at which point flush goes the toilet. All of which proves that if you intend to play dem cosmik blues, you’re best off leaving the synthesizer at home.

The true pity is that Payne’s piano playing is on of the band’s greatest attributes. The piano on “Oh, Atlanta” is proof, as Payne plays some boogie woogie that’s guaranteed to get you off the sofa. His piano work is also stellar on the slower but still great “Old Folks’ Boogie,” which Payne sings and which highlights solos by both Payne on piano and George on slide guitar. I wish the song had a bit more propulsion, but the guitar work alone makes it a keeper, which is more than can be said about “Time Loves a Hero,” which Payne sings and which I have always found slicker than a spitball. Everything—from George’s guitar on down—sounds too smooth coming from the band that gave us such rivetingly raucous tunes as “Snakes on Everything” and “Hamburger Midnight.” It has echoes of Aja-era Steely Dan, and that tells you everything you need to know about it.

“Day and Night” features some group vocals and is very middle of the road; even George’s gutbucket guitar playing fails to make up for the song’s lackluster nature. And matters are made worse by Payne’s synthesizer, which ensures the song’s ruination. Just how bad is “Day and Night”? It might as well be a Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers song. (How far-fetched is the MacDonald comparison? Not too far, as the Sultan of Smooth sings backup on “Red Streamliner,” an album out-take that was not released until the 2002 “deluxe edition” of Waiting for Columbus.) Even the saxophone solo towards the end is too “smooth jazz” for my tastes, although I must admit that the brief foray into chaos that follows has its charms. As for “Mercenary Territory,” another latter-day Feat tune, it sounds like a bad late-period Band song to me, and has all the charisma of George Harrison, although I do like it when George sings, “And I did my time in your rodeo/But the fool that I am/I’d do it all over again.” I also like the way the guitar and the Tower of Power horns build to a climax, and the rawboned sax squonk and squeal that follow.

Both “Spanish Moon” and “Dixie Chicken” are great songs, and Little Feat doesn’t fuck them up, or fuck them up beyond redemption in any case. The former opens with some funky percussion that sets up a great groove, at which point the members of Tower of Power come in with some really snazzy horns. George is at his best vocally, growling and moaning about a badass juke joint where “There’s whiskey, and bad cocaine/Poison get you just the same/And if that don’t—that don’t—kill you soon/The women will down at the Spanish Moon.” The same theme—namely, beware the ruinous spells cast by duplicitous women—is repeated in “Dixie Chicken,” which highlights Payne’s honky tonk piano and George’s slide guitar, and tells the story of a southern belle who promises George the world only to skedaddle after taking his every last dime. I’m not thrilled by Payne’s extended piano solo in the middle, which segues into some Dixieland jazz, because it disrupts the momentum of the song, but the guitar work after that is fine and the song’s ending is classic, as George stops in at the bar in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel to hear its every last male patron singing the same song he thought his Tennessee Lamb had only sung for him.

“Rocket in My Pocket” is one of George’s last good songs, and he sings it to the accompaniment of a great horn section. His call-and-response with the backup singers is great, as is his slide guitar work. I wish it were a bit more stripped down and closer to the bone; as the band got bigger their sound got fuller, and I never fail to miss the gutbucket, back-to-the-basics sound of their earlier LPs. “Don’t Bogart That Joint” is a nice little throwaway about that guy who just won’t pass the reefer, while the band performs a nice, and perhaps too nice, version of the great outlaw trucker anthem “Willin’.” Payne’s piano sweetens it up, and I would have preferred it had the song relied on the guitarists, but Payne’s piano fortunately stops short of kicking all the road dirt off the studio original. Not as effective is “Sailin’ Shoes,” which the band slows down and stretches out at the expense of the song’s original succinctness. Paine’s piano work is top-notch, the guitar work is stellar, and George is at his bluesy best on vocals. But this baby reminds me of The Grateful Dead at their most lethargic, and neither Payne’s nice piano solo or George’s slide guitar solo that follows justifies the tune’s doubling in time from the original.

“Tripe Face Boogie” opens in media res, and seems to be the continuation of some other song not included on the LP. But the beginning is great and features the Feat at their most rollicking, with Payne kicking keister on piano and George vowing to boogie his sneakers away. Unfortunately, Payne comes in around the 2-minute mark to play some pseudo-prog on the synth, and the terrifying specter of Keith Emerson suddenly darkens the arena. The rhythm then picks up again, but it’s still Payne’s synthesizer that dominates the proceedings, and what you get is synthesized boogie, which is not as tasty as real boogie, and gives you the squirts like those low-calorie potato chips. This song alone demonstrates the high price the Feat paid by giving Payne free rein to tinker around on his damn synthesizer in the first place. Fortunately George’s guitar returns just in time for him to sing, “Look out!” over and over, with a nice guitar riff tossed in between every repeat.

“A Apolitical Blues” may be the LP’s best tune. A bare bones blues with some roughneck guitar interplay between George and guest Mick Taylor of Stones fame, it features George receiving a phone call from Chairman Mao, which is just the kind of bizarre touch the early Little Feat liked to throw at you—due perhaps to their work with Frank Zappa—and which evaporated as time went on. The guitar playing is mean and George’s vocals are as rough as sandpaper, and the guitars kick the Chairman’s ass from here to Nanking. Payne throws in with some piano plink as George repeats, “Do you hear it ringin’?/Do you hear it ringin’?/DO YOU HEAR IT RINGIN’?” towards the end. LP closer “Feats Don’t Fear Me Now” is fast paced and features some nice harmony vocals and in general is one of Little Feat’s best songs, and they give it all they’ve got. Payne’s piano playing is frantic, and if I’m not wild about the long interlude in the middle during which the band repeats, “Roll right through the night” to the accompaniment of a great bass it’s only because I don’t believe in stopping a song’s momentum right when things are getting interesting. That’s jam band territory, which is the direction the Feat took after George’s passing. Lots of cries and shouts from the stage follow the band’s return to the raucous melody, and those cries and shouts are a nice way of going out, because they’re real, authentic, and not at all slick—in short, they capture the bloozy, live-wire spirit of the Little Feat I love.

The late seventies were a bad time for rockers. They all seemed dead set on going LA to slicken up their sound at the expense of their rough-edged charms. I call it Steely Dan syndrome, although that’s not altogether accurate because the Dan never had many rough edges to sand off in the first place. But so far as I’m concerned the synthesizer was one of the chief villains in this general trend, and few bands suffered from synthesizer abuse as badly as Little Feat. Waiting for Columbus is a good album marred by that damnable instrument, and if I loved Waiting for Columbus back in the day, I can hardly listen to it now. And why should I, when I can listen to Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Dixie Chicken, Sailin’ Shoes, and Little Feat? There isn’t a single cut on Waiting for Columbus that is better than its studio counterpart, and not a single cut on Waiting for Columbus that is as cool as “Strawberry Flats,” “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” or “Brides of Jesus.” To say nothing of the aforementioned “Snakes on Everything” and “Hamburger Midnight.”

The bottom line? Time loves a hero, sometimes. Other times, it helps you to realize that your hero has feet of clay. And so it goes for Waiting for Columbus, at least for me. I listened to it hundreds of times in my stoned adolescence and loved it, but I don’t love it no more. Now it just makes me sad. Little Feat could have been America’s Rolling Stones. Instead they fell flat on their face around the time of Time Loves a Hero and never got back up. Which is why I don’t consider Lowell George’s premature death as much of a tragedy as I do, say, the death of Ronnie Van Zant. George’s best work seemed behind him, and he was toiling in a band that was headed in precisely the wrong direction and no longer seemed interesting in producing sparks. In short, he was on the downward slide, whether it was due to cocaine excess or plain old muse desertion. In any event, Waiting for Columbus partakes more of the new, slicker Little Feat than the Little Feat that gave us “Dixie Chicken” and “Spanish Moon,” and that is a tragedy, I don’t care what the band’s legion of fans—a good and faithful bunch, God bless ‘em—have to say.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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  • MonkCrabbs

    Payne definitely took the band in a different direction than George would have, but Paul Barrere can’t be overlooked as one of the influencers. He definitely is the front man at a live show. I’ve seen Little Feat in it various incarnations at least once over the years, including the show at Shippensburg that included George. Some years/times they hit it, some they didn’t. It’s been an interesting five decade journey. They are a live band that does not translate well to vinyl or bits and bytes.

  • Sterno

    All you need to see to ascertain the direction of latter-day George is one of those photos with a sweater tied around his neck.  That’s a long way to fall from the first album.  I suspect aliens were involved.

  • Michael Little

    Nice point, Jeffrey! Ben, I was at that Shippy show, and loved it. It wasn’t until years later, when I listened to their first albums, that it struck me that they’d sacrificed their great roots rock sound for something that was more bloated and synth-based. And that their later songs simply got worse and worse. So like I say, I can listen to the LP, but why bother when their first four albums are so frickin’ great?

  • MonkCrabbs

    I had forgotten about preppy pose Lowell George–completely. Thank you for the flashback. I can’t muster enough passion to say much more than in retrospect they seem to have been the dope smoker’s Chicago but with a little more funk and syncopation. I will say, however, Waiting for Coulmbus was a well produced album in that era from a technical perspective. I sure played the hell out of it. 
    As for their early stuff, in retrospect it is very primitive and I think that is what gives it a rootsy charm. Willin’ has been surpassed in my mind by Fred Eaglesmith’s “Trucker’s Speed.”
    All bands evolve. Those that exist long enough eventually jump the shark.

  • Sterno

    Me, I likes primitive, so that’s no problem.  I just think George lost the will to keep fighting off Payne’s prog dogs & said what the hell, it’s a paycheck.  For atavistic, feral blues, I say Junior Kimbrough & R.L. Burnside.  They shrink heads.

  • always amused

    Really hate to admit it for a range of reasons, but in many ways I agree with ya.  But then then again, the beginning moments of nearly everything are the ones that take your breath away.  Freshly formed and straight on original thought.

    Then the lawyers and accountants take over.

    I will say though … that Paul is an astonishing guitar player.

    thanks,

    dave

  • Michael Little

    Thanks Dave. I agree that its the band that hits its stride 6 or 7 LPs in. It’s a sad commentary on the business aspects of rock, and on genius as well. Why does a band that wrote such great songs stop writing them? I agree with you too about PB; he is a great guitarist. The whole band is full of astonishing musicians. Sort of like my faves The Band, who went from creating masterpieces to releasing “Islands.” Anyway, thanks for your comments. Your pal, Mike

  • SteveRenfro

    Best party album ever made! I put Waiting For Columbus on, and no one stands still!
    Shit, I played it just today, all by myself at home. Did 5 loads of laundry, pulled out a mop I hadnt used in 9 months and danced with it all the way from the last part of Fat Man, till halfway into Dixie Chicken. Then i got the vaccuum out, changed the bag and finished the living room replaying Old Folks Boogie.
    Yes, I do love that album!

  • Michael Little

    I don’t know about the best party album ever made, but it is a good album. It’s just–to me–not as good as the albums that came before it. But I love the image of you dancing with the mop. That alone redeems the album in my eyes!

  • dan_oz

    What, no comments? Here’s a coked up, punched out version of my fave LF song from Japanese tv to fill that gap.

    • CJC188

      Great video…thanks!! 🙂

  • shays01

    Everyone can be careless, just as everyone can be biased, but if you are going to be a critic, proofread your work. The song is entitled “Day OR Night.” And speaking of “Day or Night,” the inclusion of Michael MacDonald (member of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band) on the album owes to the great amount of historical collaboration between Little Feat (Bill Payne, in particular) and the Doobies … you might want to do a little research to find out from where the principle lick for “China Grove” comes. If you’re going to quote the lyrics from a song, at least get them correct. “Mercenary Territory,” goes
    “I’ve did my time in that rodeo
    It’s been so long and I’ve got nothing to show
    Well I’m so plain loco
    Fool that I am I’d do it all over again.”
    As to comparisons to the sound of The Band in this song, I suspect many bands would be pleased if someone saw similarities, and would not consider it a criticism, at all. Obviously Levon Helm and members of the Midnight Ramble Band (who still carry Levon’s torch) … Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, and Amy Helm in particular … find Band influences in Little Feat to be quite valuable.
    “Feats Don’t Fear Me Now,” suggests that Mr. Little must be confusing Little Feat with Blue Oyster Cult. That’s probably because the Cult didn’t use synthesizers. I mean, it’s okay to despise that instrument. But don’t let your own idiosyncrasies so heavily influence a review of an album. And you might just want to ask Vince Herman and the other Leftover Salmon guys what they think of Bill Payne’s keyboards, next chance you get.

  • Chris Lagemann

    Clueless idiot. Doesn’t even get the names of the songs right. I bet he didn’t even listen to it. Would be one thing if it were an opinion with correct references. This idiot proves that he’s a bozo…

  • John M. Tanner

    Does this clown really get paid for this shoddy work? Not only does he seem clueless about the craft, het is clueless of his own. Mis-quoting lyrics and song titles does not a journalist make. He needs to go back to the car wash where he belongs.

  • John Moreland

    this guy probably thinks American Idol produces great musicians…….bet he was one of those assholes wearing polyester suites with some cheap ass fake silk shirt half unbutton walking around thinking he was John Travolta….a true disco quack…..

  • John Moreland

    I was there at Lisner in 1977…was one of the best concerts I have seen……even Lynyrd Skynyrd Guitarist Ed King on his Facebook page said this was one of the best live albums of all times……

  • JohnB

    OK, this thread is both obscure and two years old, so my comment is probably pointless, but it seems like this guys could have simply said, “I hate production values, I hate Jazz, and I especially hate the synthesizer.”

    To which the millions of devoted fans of this album would rightly answer, “so what?”

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