Little Feat were one of the very best rock bands of the 1970s, as evidenced by classic albums such as Sailin’ Shoes, Feats Don’t Fail Me Know, and Dixie Chicken. The band could spit out a catchy three-minute pop song if they saw fit, or segue into extended jams, highlighting their adept musical chops. Their songs were glorious musical concoctions of rock, blues, soul, funk, country, and jazz. Little Feat was an incredibly versatile band and their live concerts were lively, wondrous experiences. Yet due to a lack of hit singles and little radio airplay, few mainstream music listeners ever knew who they were. Little what?
After band member Lowell George tragically died in 1979 at the age of 34, the consensus was that Little Feat would either cease to exist or become a shadow or their former selves. After all, George was the group’s main songwriter and lead singer, as well as an accomplished guitar player. Although he had released a solo album only a few months before his death, George had no intention of leaving the band. Main man or not, he was only one cog in the wheel and the rest of the musicians in the band showed that they could more than hold their own in his absence. Billy Payne, Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton, Ritchie Hayward, and Kenny Gradney were all outstanding musicians — and a few of them could hold a note too — and they weren’t about to sit around and rust or retire in their thirties. And so they carried on. Although most fans acknowledge that the band’s best material was written by George, it can be argued that they became an even stronger band after his passing. During those post-George years, the original members weren’t always onboard at the same time, but no matter what the lineup, Little Feat continued to be a formidable musical force, especially in concert. The problem, though, was that many of their old fans dropped off the bandwagon.
I was one of those fans who were guilty of abandoning the band during the 80s and 90s, listening mostly to the alternative and indie groups on the scene during those years, and ignoring older bands like Little Feat. But Little Feat soldiered on during those decades, recording new albums and making the audacious move of adding a female lead singer, Shaun Murphy. This young woman had a strong voice (she’s been compared by many reviewers to Janis Joplin), belting out the blues and soul with the best of them, so she fit perfectly with the rest of the band. Before they added her, the band recruited another excellent vocalist, Craig Fuller — most famous for being the singer on early albums by Pure Prairie League — and an additional guitarist, the talented Fred Tackett. Let it roll!
Little Feat’s double live album from 1978, Waiting for Columbus, is revered by many as being one of the best live albums better. But it’s quite possible they topped that album with another concert recording, Live at Neon Park, a double-CD set that was released in 1996, and featured both Shaun Murphy and Craig Fuller on vocals. It’s tempting to say that the presence of Lowell George is sorely missed, but you know, that’s not really the case here. It may be musically sacrilegious to say this, but the band sounds great without him. Clearly, Little Feat is so good, and so deep in musical talent, that they know how to compensate for the loss of a member as special as Lowell George. Although George is not personally present on Live at Neon Park, his spirit resonates throughout, especially on beloved compositions that he wrote, such as “Dixie Chicken,” “Willin’,” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” And to further add to that vibe, the great man’s daughter, Inara George, shows up to sing on the classic “Sailin’ Shoes.” I loved Waiting for Columbus but I think the band is even more spirited on Live at Neon Park. No matter who is handling lead vocals, or which song they are playing, they sound like they are having a thoroughly wonderful time. And as any fan of live albums will tell you, such joyful exuberance infects the listener too.