Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Feats Don’t Fail Me Now

Remembering Paul Barrere, born on this date in 1948.Ed.

Little Feat was one of America’s foremost pre-punk-era bands, perhaps even its best. Little Feat boasted musicians with mad skills, the best of them the brilliant vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Lowell George. And like a great junkball pitcher, they could throw all manner of bedazzling shit your way. They played fastball rock, curveball boogie, knuckleball blues, and a dangerous forkball funk, and with a runner of third and one out they might even send some screwball country past you, and make you look like a fool, boy. No wonder none other than Jimmy Page hailed them as his favorite American band.

In short, Little Feat cooked. But lots of bands can cook—all you need is a frying pan and some grease. What truly separated Little Feat from the pack was its brilliant songwriting. The band bequeathed us a whole shitload of timeless songs—including “Easy to Slip,” “Willin’,” “Spanish Moon,” “Hamburger Midnight,” “Dixie Chicken,” and plenty more besides—not one of which I have ever heard played on my car radio. There is no justice in this world, boyo.

In addition to being a great band, Little Feat remains an enduring medical enigma. To wit: When did Little Feat, or Patient X as the band is referred to in the copious medical literature on the subject, actually die? Some would argue that Little Feat is very much alive, and it’s true that a band by that name continues to make the rounds of the concert circuit. But I would argue that said band is little more than an animated corpse, dragging its desiccated carcass and reek of putrefaction from town to town and playing by means of jolts of electricity carefully administered by technicians hiding backstage.

Still others would pronounce the time of death as June 1979, when George died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Arlington, Virginia at age 34. But in my expert medical opinion, and I will go into this in more detail later, Little Feat expired well before that, in 1975 to be precise, a victim of Lowell’s diminishing role in the band and a creeping case of Steely Dan Disease.

Little Feat was founded in Los Angeles in 1969 by George (a former Mother of Invention) and keyboardist and songwriter Bill Payne. Roy Estrada, another former Mother, played bass, while Richie Hayward (formerly of George’s first band, The Factory) played drums. By 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now Estrada had departed, and been replaced by Kenny Gradney. Little Feat had also filled out its sound by adding Paul Barrere on guitar and vocals on Sam Clayton on percussion and vocals.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now is the band’s swan song, and its best album in my opinion, if only because it doesn’t peter out towards the end in a couple of songs that amount to little more than filler. There isn’t a single weak cut on Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, and I love everything about it except the title of the great opening cut “Rock’n’Roll Doctor,” which never fails to lead my mind through an increasingly irksome chain of dismal associations, from Humble Pie’s loathsome “I Don’t Need No Doctor” to the atrocious “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)” to the truly hideous “Rocking Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu,” by which time I’m so nauseous I really do need a doctor.

But title aside, “Rock’n’Roll Doctor” is one very funky number that highlights George’s talents as both a vocalist and slide guitar master. George lisps, drools, throws in lots of little “oohs” and “mmms,” and even tosses in some bebop nonsense, and in general puts on a bravura performance that is only improved by the backing vocalist, whose voice is as deep as a trench. As for the slide guitar, George bends notes, plays needle-sharp riffs, and produces a giant echo that reverberates as much as it sings. If “Rock’n’Roll Doctor” is a showcase for George’s slide guitar skills the rollicking “Oh Atlanta” is all about Payne’s frenetic piano, which makes you think of dim honky tonks where beer bottles crash into the chicken wire strung in front of the stage for just that purpose. At least three guys sing in tandem, and they sound great, especially on the chorus where they get really fancy. And Payne follows a great singing slide guitar solo by George with a wild and wooly piano solo that’ll have you crying, “Feats don’t fail me now!”

“Skin It Back” is one irresistibly slinky and sinuous funk number with fantastic drumming by Hayward and some percolating conga by Clayton, but is dominated by one very cool keyboard riff by Payne and a long instrumental featuring some intricate interplay between Payne’s keyboards and George’s slide guitar. Meanwhile George’s vocals are smoky as he sings prophetically, “I can’t find a soul who’ll take on this mess/It’s those rock and roll hours, early graves without flowers.” And then takes the song out repeating, “Skin it back/Tell it to you.”

“Down the Road” is a slow-simmering dish of Dixie funk, and opens with some fantastic slide guitar by George, who throws everything he has into such lines as, “I guess I better meet you down the road/Down the roooaaad, mmm!” Meanwhile Payne throws in lots of spicy piano, while Clayton’s congas and Hayward’s drums provide a bottom that’ll have you asking whether fries come with that shake. I love it when George sings what sounds like “She can take my teeth,” but unfortunately the lyric sheet says something different, and that’s too bad. “She can take my teeth” is one wonderful line.

“Spanish Moon” is the album standout, an impossibly funky number that opens with a big bass, congas, and one very heavy drumbeat. George, who is magnificent, sings, “There was hookers and hustlers/They filled up the room/I heard about this place they call the Spanish Moon,” and, “One false step, you get done in/It’s a cold situation/If that—that don’t—kill you soon/The women will down at the Spanish Moon.” Meanwhile the Tower of Power horns burst in to play big brass blasts and George wails and shouts before the song—whose only fault is it’s too short—goes out on a funky instrumental note dominated by Payne’s organ.

Almost as good is title track “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” an up-tempo piano and slide-guitar-driven rocker about a female trucker who’s got “the biggest—hmmm—the biggest truck in town.” The chorus is great, as is the moment when George and another vocalist sing, “Roll right through the night/Rooolll/Roll right through the night/I said rooollll!” Only to be followed by one high-stepping piano solo, over which George plays some tremendous slide guitar. This is the perfect song to break the speed limit to, and I highly suggest you do so as soon as possible.

The title of “The Fan” refers to both a groupie and the shit hitting the fan, and the song opens with a prog-like organ riff that continues throughout. Meanwhile George, who shares lead vocal duties with I don’t know who, opens the song with the great couplet, “Heard you got an infection/Just before your lewd rejection.” And together they sing, “You were a sweet girl/When you were a cheerleader/But I think you’re much better now” before the band goes into a long jam featuring one feedback-drenched guitar playing lead while another punctuates it with single notes, before segueing into a lengthy synthesizer solo by Payne. The whole thing is great, and closes down with George singing, “Bought a few reds from your neighborhood dealer/And you passed out in the back of a car/You were too messed up to climb out/What if your old man had found out?”

LP closer “Cold Cold Cold/Tripe Face Boogie” is an odd conjoining of a blues song and a boogie number, both of which appear separately on previous albums, something George, a perfectionist, had no problem doing. (It took him two stabs at “Willin’” to get it right.) Anyway, “Cold Cold Cold” is a slow blues about both a frigid night in a flea-bitten hotel and the equally frigid woman he encounters there. The tune highlights George’s command of the slide guitar, as well as his ability to sing the blues as well as anybody out there. I love the lines, “It’s been a month since I had a toke/Or a dime to make the call.” And his closing slide guitar is a thing of beauty.

The same goes for the very Faces-like electric piano run by Payne that leads straight into George’s tour de force vocals on “Tripe Face Boogie”: “Buffaloed in Buffalo/And I was entertained in Houston/New York, Yew Nork, you got to choose one/Cause it’s a tripe face boogie/Going to boogie my sneakers away.” I have no idea where he got that Yew Nork, or what a tripe face boogie might be in the first place, but I love the way he screams, “Tripe boogie! Tripe Boogie! TRIPE BOOGIE!/All night looooonnng!” while Payne hammers away at the piano. This is immediately followed by a strange and slow interlude in which Payne plays some very dissonant piano and overlays it with an equally dissonant synthesizer, before George’s slide guitar knocks the song back onto track with a galloping solo backed by some frantic drums and percussion. Then George cries, “I said look out!” before ripping off a frantic series of notes, and does this twice more before the song ends in a caterwaul.

Anyway, back to my expert medical diagnosis of Little Feat’s time of death. By 1975’s The Last Record Album, the band had begun moving towards a glossy, air brushed, and synthesizer-dominated sound—an endemic problem in El Lay at that time. Moreover, as George’s health deteriorated, the quality of the band’s songwriting fell off precipitously. Worst of all, Bill Payne—who grabbed the helms from a Lowell George who was both in ailing health and disgusted by the band’s slick new sound—led Little Feat into the dark realms of jazz-fusion, a move that caused faithful fans like yours truly to regretfully write the band off the same way we had an increasingly bland Steely Dan.

Still, Little Feat’s first four albums are all remarkable, which isn’t bad when you think about it. Hell, even The Band only had two great studio LPs in ‘em. Had George not lived so close to the edge—and just as importantly, had he not opted to run the band as a democracy—Little Feat might have become America’s Rolling Stones. Yes, they were that good. In fact, give me weed, whites, and wine, and I’ll be willin’ to say they had an Exile on Main Street in them. Make the wine Thunderbird, and I’ll throw in a Sticky Fingers to boot.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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