Little Feat At 50: An Interview With Paul Barrere
Sooner or later, every committed rock ‘n’ roller finds his or her way to Little Feat, which has been described as everything from “bluesadelic” to “funky Americana,” and all of which really means an eclectic bunch of styles that long ago melded together in a bluesy, boogieing, baked-smile stew. Their influence is wide — not least on Phish, moe. and many other stalwarts of the jam scene — and here in 2019, a Little Feat show, when you’re lucky to get one, is still a good ol’ jammy time.
It’s a special year for the legacy band celebrating its 50th anniversary. The five decades were hardly smooth — founding members passed away, there was a lengthy hiatus, the creative spark has sometimes shone brightly, sometimes dimly — but Little Feat endures, buoyed not only by its best-known songs (“Willin’,” “Skin It Back,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” countless more) but the commitment of the band members and their disciples to keep playing ‘em — and keep stretching ‘em out.
In 2019, Little Feat is keyboardist Bill Payne, guitarist Paul Barrere, multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett, bassist Kenny Gradney, drummer Gabe Ford and percussionist Sam Clayton. Payne, who co-founded Little Feat with the late frontman Lowell George, is technically the lone remaining original member, but Barrere, Gradney and Clayton all go back to Little Feat’s “classic” 1972 lineup, so who’s counting? The sextet will play a number of 50th anniversary shows throughout the year, including in markets Little Feat hasn’t headlined in some time, along with a commemorative 50th anniversary show at New York’s Beacon Theatre on March 8.
JamBase was privileged to talk with Payne and Barrere to discuss the big five-zero and look back and forward at all things Feat. Below is my interview with Barrere [head here for my chat with Payne].
JAMBASE: Paul, let’s get this one out there right at the top: 50 years of Little Feat, and that’s damned impressive. Is that something you’re in awe of?
PAUL BARRERE: No, it’s more like, “50 years. Holy shit!” [laughs] But it makes me feel proud, definitely. I’m not in awe of the whole thing because we’re still living it. I’m just amazed that we’ve managed to stay together and keep making music all these years.
JAMBASE: What keeps you guys working well together? You appear to, you know, like each other, but how do you keep from the tensions any band that’s been together this long would have?
PB: The music, period. That’s the hook to the whole thing, not only the longevity but also the attraction. We’ve never been a band that plays the songs the same way twice. Every song is a gem, we feel, and we leave ourselves spaces within the songs to improvise. To me that means space to be a musician. So that’s what we think is important, not play the same songs the same length every night and fire up the wind machine to blow your hair back, although, my hair has left me [laughs].
JAMBASE: When you play these tunes like “Fat Man In The Bathtub” or “Dixie Chicken” that you’ve done hundreds of times, are you still getting something new out of them? Do you go looking for that?
PB: Yeah, and I mean, I’ll do all these other side projects like Dead Feat with Anders [Osborne] or there’s just an opportunity where someone wants to play and wants to cover a Little Feat song. The response I give is always, “Well, what arrangement would you like to play?” We have about 20 different recorded versions of some of these like “Dixie Chicken,” where we could play it like on Waiting For Columbus with the Dixieland section, or something more recent where we throw a little “Tennessee Jed” into the middle of it. That’s an idea that came after I played those shows with Phil [Lesh].
JAMBASE: That’s where it came from.
PB: Yeah, absolutely. So, every opportunity we get to play these songs, it’s always different. There are about 20 different intros into “Dixie Chicken,” you know? The fact that you can play with the music, not just play it, is really the reason we say let’s go out there and do it. I’m in my 70s now, and I chuckle to myself sometimes because there are all these memories that come back from different eras when we play certain songs. I’ll deliver a lyric and then laugh on stage and have to be like, come on Paul, let’s get back in the game now.
JAMBASE: That must happen a lot — things come back from years past.
PB: Oh yeah. It’s a storied past, you know? Everyone’s been through so much, and god, we made it through. So we say, come enjoy. I think the thing for our fans is that the beat’s infectious. We still dare you to stay seated. Get up and do that snake dance.
JAMBASE: So Little Feat seems to have settled into a good schedule. We always wish we saw more of you, but every year there are a handful of dates when it can happen, and that seems to be the right way to do it. Is that accurate?
PB: Well I’ll answer it this way, depending on how much you know already about my medical history. I went through the whole Hep C thing, got through that, and then came cancer. My doctor was very funny, actually, he said, “You’ve beat the little c, now you’ve got the big C.” I’ve been treated twice now with radio embolisms, which are so un-invasive it only takes me about a week to rebound. But with all of that going on, any long-term plans have been kind of hard to set up, and to mobilize the whole band to do much beyond some weekend runs has been close to impossible.
We go out and play for a week at a time, and that’s pretty much it for a while. In the meantime, Billy got offered a gig with The Doobie Brothers and that’s been good for him. Fred and I do our acoustic duets which is a little easier — all you have to do is carry some guitars — although we’ve added Kenny and Gabe for a couple of those shows and called it Funky Feat, as a quartet.
JAMBASE: It makes sense, although your 50th anniversary shows seem like a more substantial schedule, or will be.
PB: The 50th anniversary we’ve been discussing since the beginning of last year, and we figured if all goes well we could maybe do it in four sections. This first one is coming up in March, which is going to be great. It covers the East Coast, and it includes some places we haven’t been to in a long time, especially in Florida and Virginia, other than D.C. itself. And then we have our Jamaica thing, that’s every year. And that’s not work, that’s like a paid vacation. [laughs] As long as we can keep it on this kind of schedule we can keep doing it.
JAMBASE: How is your health these days, if you don’t mind my asking?
PB: My last scan showed another little spot they’re going to zap. They use high-frequency microwaves, so this is the third one they’re going to zap, and that’ll put me out of the game for about a week. But there’s no chemo, no radiation, they do it and they tell me I’m good to go. Hey man, I get up in the morning, I read the obituaries, and if I’m not in them? I’ll make myself a coffee. [laughs]
JAMBASE: You’ve played Little Feat music with a lot of younger bands and gamely participated in things like moe. covering Waiting For Columbus at the Peach Festival last summer. It seems like you enjoy that.
PB: Oh absolutely. First and foremost, you’re helping them get the opportunity to experience the freedom we know is in the music. OK, great, you know the verses, you know the hooks. In between, have some fun. The fun is in that in-between. People come away from the experience feeling that.
JAMBASE: A number of folks who’ve covered Waiting For Columbus or just well-known parts of the Little Feat catalog say they’re surprised to learn these songs aren’t as easy as they thought to play. Do you get that a lot?
PB: I do. And that’s pretty much the same experience I had when I played with Phil that one summer. “Wow, there is a lot more to these Dead songs than I realized.” I mean, being the idiot that I am, I can’t replicate anybody — I just play me [laughs]. So I always have to put my own spin on things. But that to me is really what’s a lot of fun. The Dead songs have all of these intricacies. The Allman Brothers stuff does too. There are some band like that that make it sound so easy, and yet once you’ve dug into it, you go, oh, wow, let me dig deeper.
JAMBASE: Do you have clear memories of those original shows Waiting For Columbus was created from?
PB: Oh yeah, I do. There was one night in particular I’ll never forget and that it was a Tuesday night. I should have been put on injured reserve, I should say. [laughs] But I do remember the feeling of going onstage every night at the Rainbow in London or the Lisner [in Washington D.C.] and being overwhelmed by the audience, and so grateful to have the Tower [of Power] horns. It was good. We knew it was good.
JAMBASE: What do you remember about picking the material that made the album?
PB: Well, that was really Lowell and the engineer at the time, but they picked the best of the best. I think people mostly know that we also polished them up a little bit in the studio, a lot of live albums are like that. But I thought the choices were great. Mick Taylor playing on “A Apolitical Blues.” It was a good deal overall. It put us on the map, and grew our map.
JAMBASE: Most people gravitate toward the classic, 70s era Little Feat songs but there’s obviously a much bigger catalog than that. What would you like to see back in a Little Feat setlist, or there for the first time?
PB: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” we haven’t done in a while, though Fred and I do a really cool version of it with acoustic guitar and mandolin. “Day At The Dog Races.” “Representing The Mambo.” “Texas Rose Cafe.” We have a list of more than 50 songs to choose from for a 14-song set. Everyone has their favorites. We’ll have to run it at soundcheck, see what works. This is from a guy, by the way, who’s said that rehearsals and soundchecks are a big waste of time [laughs].
JAMBASE: Do you still feel that way?
PB: Soundchecks are good. But once we’re on stage, the old nemesis returns: we could screw up at any point of this, and there’ll be complete chaos, and everyone’s running in different directions. We make it work.
JAMBASE: It’s been seven years since Rooster Rag, which sounded like a Little Feat record. Your fans liked it. Are you interested in recording new music with Little Feat?
PB: We’ve looked around to see if any labels would be out there to back us, and so far, well, they don’t even throw out nibbles anymore. If we can find some kind of financing to do one, I’d be happy to go do it. But doing a record involves bringing a lot of people in. The physical sale of records, CDs really, has dropped so drastically — people just go to their phones and their Spotify playlist and the musician gets his .0001 cent [laughs]. It’s hard to find a record company that feels like doing what we want to do.
JAMBASE: Will you write and play new material though?
PB: I would like to. I guess that’s something we’ll be working out on the road. I really like to learn and work on material on the road. What was so cool about [1979’s] Down On The Farm, was we moved to Maryland to make that record and we were playing all these colleges all around the D.C. area. We had songs we had learned but that hadn’t been performed or recorded, so we got out there and started playing them. If you can get out there and play some material and hone it into something that makes you stand up and salute, that’s great. Sometimes you’ll get in the studio and record a song that sounds great, and all of a sudden when you’ve been playing it out there it’s better than it sounded.
JAMBASE: What’s an example of a Little Feat song that came out that way?
PB: “Skin It Back” was like that for sure, way back. “Cold Cold Cold,” we did a version that was basically the first segue we’d ever done on a record. I think it might have been into “Tripe Face Boogie.” I’ll have to look at a playlist on LittleFeat.net to know. The Internet’s so useful. And yet, it’s also like every pirate in the world has found a new ocean.
JAMBASE: What do you have planned for the 50th anniversary celebration show in New York on March 8?
PB: Oh, it’ll be a typical Little Feat setlist that you might think you know all of what’s coming, and then other things come. But sure you’ll hear “Spanish Moon” and “Skin It Back” and “Fat Man.” It’s been a while since we’ve played Manhattan, we’ve been doing some shows at The Capitol up in Port Chester. But we’ll have the horn section — that wonderful horn section. And Larry [Campbell] and Teresa [Williams] will be there and I’m sure we’ll get them out to do a few things for us. There’ll be a setlist — we haven’t written it yet — but those will be merely suggestions. [laughs]