Looking back on the band’s greatest studio album
For those of us buying vinyl in the ‘70s, the Warner Bros. / Reprise Loss Leaders albums were eye-opening explorations of new music priced at just a buck a record. (Read a terrific series of blog posts or check out this excellent music forum thread for tons more info about them.)
Usually (but not always) they were two-LP collections packed with the broadest range of music imaginable. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was the title of a 1970 Loss Leaders compilation, and it was a three-LP extravaganza priced at just three dollars. One side had Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot and Jimmy Webb. Another side had Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. An embarrassment of musical riches for adventurous ears!
Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was the Loss Leader that introduced me to The Kinks (“Apeman”), Van Morrison (“Call Me Up in Dreamland”) and Little Feat (“Strawberry Flats,” a Bill Payne / Lowell George tune from the band’s eponymous debut). I confess, unlike those other two introductions, the Little Feat track had virtually no impact on me – it treads a territory better explored by Poco, Creedence and The Band.
But then came the first Loss Leader of 1973, the double-LP Appetizers which, like Little Feat’s third album, leads off with the exceptional “Dixie Chicken.” The Feat, now dispensing a funky recipe of bluesy rock with a steaming bowl of New Orleans gumbo on the side, officially made my musical radar.
“Dixie Chicken” also lent its name to Little Feat’s third studio effort (and later to the Dixie Chicks), released on January 25, 1973. After 1972’s Sailin’ Shoes album, which hinted at the direction the Feat were headed, the band had finally found their defining sound. The battery of Lowell George and his slide guitar plus Bill Payne and his keyboard was fully charged, powering an ensemble that also included Richie Hayward on drums and Feat first-timers Paul Barrere (guitar), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Sam Clayton (congas). Bonnie Bramlett should probably have been considered a full member of the band, too: She fronts a chorus of backing vocalists that includes Bonnie Raitt.
“Two Trains” follows the title track, and it’s one of those songs that begs repeated listening. Check out the way George spreads those lyrics out across the band’s funky groove, the way the backing vocals support his singing, the way Hayward and Gradney provide rock-solid rhythm, the way George’s slide and Payne’s keyboards dance all over the place. Then go back again and listen to the lyrics. It’s one of five George-penned songs on the album (he co-wrote two others), and it’s a beaut.
Barrere and Payne join forces as co-writers on “Walkin’ All Night,” a bluesy rocker that feels like a palate cleanser before the second-greatest track on the album unfolds: “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” Oh, Juanita, my sweet chiquita, what ARE you up to? Well, the internet is happy to dispense all sorts of interpretations. Is Spotcheck Billy a junkie? Is Juanita a prostitute? The singer is sexually frustrated, to be sure, but is it because she’s busy with clients? He’s too wasted to rise to the occasion? It’s her time of the month? You listen and decide!
While you’re busy deciding, give a listen to the slow-rolling “On Your Way Down,” penned by New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, who released it in 1972 on his Life, Love and Faith album and again in 2006 in a duet version with Elvis Costello. It’s often mistaken for a Little Feat song, maybe because George sings it so convincingly as his own: “It’s high time that you found / The same people you misuse on your way up / You might meet up / On your way down.” And what a tasty guitar break.
“Fool Yourself” is a song you might recognize from Bonnie Raitt’s 1975 album, Home Plate. Yep, Feat did it first. It was written by Fred Tackett, who became a Feat member in 1988 with the Let It Roll album and continues to tour with the band to this day. It’s interesting to compare the two versions, perhaps as both sides of the same tortured relationship: “You always hide from the one who calls you friend.”
“Roll Um Easy” and “Juliette,” two more George compositions, are softer and more subtle, as is the album closer “Lafayette Railroad,” a go-down-smooth instrumental that would feel at home on Stuff’s 1976 eponymous debut album.
Little Feat broke up after Dixie Chicken, and Warner Bros. had to pay them to reform and record again. Good thing they did: Feats Don’t Fail Me Now followed in 1974 and went gold. The Last Record Album came along in 1975 and, like its predecessor, made it to #36 on the Billboard album chart. Time Loves a Hero did even better in 1977, making it to #34. Waiting for Columbus, easily one of THE greatest live albums of all time, came along in 1978 and made #18 on the Billboard 200.
The ’70s were a hell of a run for the Feat, but the decade ended in tragedy: Lowell George died in 1979 of an accidental cocaine overdose.
These days, without Loss Leaders to help music fans discover music, I suspect most new Feat fans discover the band through Waiting for Columbus. It’s an undeniably great album – but don’t underestimate the band’s studio work, of which Dixie Chicken is arguably their very best.