Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat, Little Feat

Little Feat’s eponymous 1971 debut may not have changed the world, but to those who were listening it must have come as a revelation–here were four guys, two of ‘em Mothers of Invention alums, boldly staking their claim (and a decent claim it was) as America’s very own Rolling Stones. Not bad for a first outing.

Fronted by guitarist/vocalist and native Angeleno Lowell George–who with his gutbucket growl was the youngest white old black bluesman ever to graduate from Hollywood High School–Little Feat laid it on the line on their first LP. You get lysergic blues, trucker toons, some Sticky Fingers-school country honk–these guys took Gram Parsons’ concept of Cosmic American Music and ran with it. This is edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold music, the sound of the Mississippi Delta on hallucinogens–a mythical collaboration between Don Van Vliet, Dave Dudley, Mick & Keith, ZZ Top, Slim Harpo, and Harpo Marx.

Robert Christgau opined that these guys could “pass for” the Band, but he’s fulla shit. The Band always held things in check; they were as tightly wound as a clock, and clocks aren’t in the business of howling. They never hit as berserk a note as the Feat do on “Hamburger Midnight,” and there’s simply no mistaking the very agitated freak looking for safe harbor in “Strawberry Flats” to Levon Helm’s resigned drifter looking for a place to lay his head in “The Weight.” And the Americana-loving Robbie Robertson never could have come up with as song as bizarrely lovely as “Brides of Jesus,” which is set where exactly? In Lowell George’s LSD-scrambled mind?

No, the early Little Feat was a freak’s dream’s come true. Just check out the sorta Captain Beefheart-esque “Hamburger Midnight,” on which George plays some truly frenzied slide guitar and delivers the most unhinged performance of his career. Or “Strawberry Flats,” wherein poor Lowell (who’s been “ripped off and run out of town”) knocks on a friend’s door in search of succor only to discover: “His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit/And he said not in my house, not in my house/”You look like you’re part of a conspiracy.”

You get two count ‘em two trucker songs; “Truck Stop Girl” tells the tragic story of a young gearjammer on a “ten city run” who gets his heart broken and takes off without tying his load down, with fatal results; “Willin’” is nothing less than the greatest country rock song ever written about driving an eighteen-wheeler. Lowell’s a lonesome outlaw doing Mexico runs; he’s had his head stove in and driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made, but if you give him weed, whites and wine, and show him a sign, he’s willing.

“Brides of Jesus” is otherworldly lovely, from George’s yearning vocals to Bill Payne’s piano to Kirby Johnson’s string and horn arrangements. I have no idea what George is singing about, but “Brides” is unique in the annals of Little Feat–gorgeous, moving, a wayward foray into El Lay Catholic mysticism. The kick-ass “Snakes on Everything,” meanwhile, would sound right at home on Sticky Fingers; vocalist Payne may not be anybody’s idea of Mick Jagger, but George sure gives Mick Taylor a run for his money.

The B Side isn’t as strong as the A, but it’s still got plenty of snap, crackle and pop, from opener “Forty-Four Blues/How Many More Years” (by Roosevelt Sykes and Howling’ Wolf, respectively) to throwaway closer “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” On the former George sings like a true son of Beefheart and brews up a storm on the mouth harp while Payne plays a positively lubricious piano; on the latter, a rollicking sea shanty if I’ve ever heard one, Willie does Captain Queeg one better by throwing his crew overboard, at which point Luke the Rat deserts ship with the parting words, “”Don’t believe, no don’t believe/Don’t believe everything that you hear.”

Sandwiched between you get the sweet and sad country honk of “I’ve Been the One,” which is made even sweeter by the pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kkeinow; the funky “get out of town or else” of the very reminiscent of Exile on Main Street “Crack in the Door,” on which George plays a slide solo for the ages; and the exquisitely laid back “Takin’ My Time,” which is more or less a solo turn by Payne on vocals and piano.

Little Feat would go on to record a string of inspired albums in Sailin’ Shoes, Dixie Chicken, and Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, before Payne’s snooty jazz-lite leanings edged out George’s bluesy predelictions and the band into a swamp rock Steely Dan. By 1975 at latest the band had lost its edge, even if their live twofer Waiting for Columbus did win plenty of boogie hearts and minds, including (at least at the time) mine. The following year the band would release the desultory Down on the Farm and George would die on the road, and the band would subsequently go on to become the slickest entry on the jam band circuit.

But on their debut Little Feat hit the ground running while daring to let their freak flag fly, and made some of the rawest noise this side of “Turd on the Run.” In the rock world it’s almost always better–i.e., less depressing–to pay less heed to a story’s end than to its beginning. I listen to Down on the Farm and it makes me sad. I listen to Little Feat and I think holy Christ, what a marvel.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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