By: Olivia Ware
Talking to Bill Payne is like entering an eternal past, a rare preservation of the peace-addled 1970s music era carried over into what he calls the "pop prism" of the 21st century. As a founding member of Little Feat, he is unabashedly sentimental, strikingly intelligent and he believes sincerely in the power of words, art and, of course, music. He has a loyal respect for the music community, which he discusses, without hierarchy or pretense, as a bunch of guys who like to get together and play music. The impression he gives is not one of history, but of timelessness.
"We've had The Rolling Stones sit on the side of the stage and watch us. We've had the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia watching us," he says in his unique, almost stream-of-consciousness style that evokes emotions more than structured thought. "Brahms used to call it the 'footsteps of giants.' For him it was Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart; for me it was Zappa, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Ray Charles. Keith Richards said to me once, 'Oh mate, we're all part of the same thing.' He was saying, 'Welcome to the club. You dig us, and we dig you guys, too.' What a concept."
That kind of reciprocal influence is the bottom line of Little Feat's newest album, Join The Band (released August 26 on 429 Records), which features songs that the band has been playing for years – but this time, they have collaborated with other artists (who they dig and who dig them, too) to bring a fresh twist to the tracks. Though it was released late last month, the project started almost a decade ago when the band had the idea of inviting artists to play with them onstage and filming a documentary of the performances. Although Dave Matthews wanted to be involved, ultimately they could not generate enough participation or funding to launch the project. But, when Payne and Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere went down to Key West four years later to record on Jimmy Buffett's record License To Chill, the ball started rolling and Buffett agreed to help Little Feat produce a guest artist album.
"Only two things were sure: we knew that Jimmy would be on it, because he wanted to sing [pauses] and he put up the money," laughs Barrere with his gruff rowdiness. "And Billy had called Dave Matthews to see if he would still be interested. He said, 'I wanted to do it four years ago, and I want to do it now.' To get his involvement opened a lot of doors and got people interested. The one that really shocked me was Brooks & Dunn. Mac McAnally [Sawyer Brown, Coral Reefer Band], who co-produced with Billy and works with Jimmy's band, was talking to Ronnie Dunn about a project he was doing, and he said Ronnie just looked at him and said, 'I want to be on it.'"
From there, the band gained the participation of Bob Seger, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Bela Fleck, Chris Robinson, Emmylou Harris and other well-respected names in the industry. The result is Join The Band, a rock/jazz/blues/country compilation that is true to the band's mixed-genre legacy but holds an extra layer of complexity. Little Feat recorded the basics of each song and then gave the contributors some artistic freedom in deciding what direction they wanted to take it.
|Vintage Little Feat circa 1975|
"The whole idea behind the album is to share influences and creative ideas and add a bit of yourself to an existing plate of gumbo," says Barrere. "It really does show that the music community is a community."
And it's a community that Little Feat has been active in for almost 40 years now, from the time that Lowell George left Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. As the legend goes, it was George's (and ultimately Little Feat's) classic song "Willin'" that took George out of that band.
"Lowell played "Willin'" for Frank, and Frank was not a fan of the drug culture of the '60s, with the weed and acid and all that. Frank thought it was a good song and Lowell would be better served if he started his own band and started doing stuff like that," explains Barrere. So, George started Little Feat. According to Barrere, the band name came about when fellow Mothers of Invention member Jimmy Carl Black told George that he had the "ugliest little fucking feet" that he had ever seen. The "feat" spelling is a not-so-subtle shout out to The Beatles.
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