Some bands benefit from the box-set treatment and some don't. Falling into the latter category is Little Feat, on Rhino's Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat. The box takes four compact discs, eighty-two tracks, and five hours to prove that the band's best work was done on its first three Warner Bros. albums in the early Seventies.
The formula for this kind of box should be familiar to record buyers by now. A band puts out a string of pretty good recordings before calling it quits. Said band then regroups at some point and begins touring and recording again in hopes of cashing in on fans' fond memories of the group in its prime. Record company picks through back catalogue, live recordings, outtakes, and the band's more recent output to cobble together a package that will please hard-core fans, appeal to casual listeners who may have heard good things about the group but never really heard them very much, and reassure the surviving band members that their new stuff ain't bad either.
Guess who gets stiffed by this less than winning formula? The listener, of course, as disc time is given over to the usually less-than-stellar recent stuff and the band's handpicked classics and album-filler favorites. That certainly is the case here, as an entire disc is devoted to material that Little Feat recorded since reforming in the late Eighties. This material, on disc three, is expertly played and rather boring. Disc two is culled from the group's 1976-1981 output, when touring and cocaine had taken its toll on the band's songwriting and playing.
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So what was good about Little Feat before its members' careerist ambitions and never-say-die attitude surfaced? Mainly it was down to founding member guitarist-vocalist Lowell George, who died of a heart attack in 1979. He was the heart and soul of the band as well as the brains. He left the group in 1978, effectively ending the Little Feat saga (at least it should have ended it). A native of Los Angeles, George also was known as a charmer and a hustler. He briefly was a member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention (can anything good besides original drummer Jimmy Carl Black and reed player Ian Underwood have come out of Mr. Zappa's plantation system?), which is where he met bassist Roy Estrada, another founding member of Little Feat. Rounding out the group was classically trained keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer Richie Hayward. Formed in 1969, Little Feat began looking for a record deal and found one with Warner Bros. a year later.
Little Feat's first album, released in 1971, was hailed as a Band-like country-rock outing with brains and wit. Their self-titled debut longplayer is marked by surreal, absurdist wordplay (which would become one of George's songwriting trademarks), and soulful, heartfelt musicianship. There weren't many other groups like Little Feat during that period who wedded intelligence and musicianship without being pretentious about it. At that time, when hippie jam bands were pumping out albums full of noodling raga rock, Little Feat's devotion to song form made it shine like the musical gem it was.
That record is woefully underrepresented on disc one of this box set. Hamburger Midnight and Strawberry Flats (released together as a single in the fall of 1970) are here, but not the wonderful Truck Stop Girl. George's classic trucker anthem Willin' is included, but how could it not be? That particular song serves as an archetype for just about all the country rock/altcountry that has been recorded in its wake. If any song deserves to be labeled the perfect country song, this one does. Willin' uses stereotypical honky-tonk images of truckers and waitresses, and somehow turns the predictable pathos into an uplifting anthem. How did George do it? With talent, brains, and a beautiful, restrained vocal. This song has been cut by many other artists over the years, but his version has never been bested.
Disc one is rounded out with great tracks from Little Feat's second and third albums, Sailin' Shoes and Dixie Chicken, respectively. The former extended the first album's strengths with even more surreal lyrics that went together beautifully with the music; nothing was gratuitously weird or grotesque. Tripe Face Boogie and Sailin' Shoes still sound very funny and contemporary today. Dixie Chicken saw the departure of bass-player Estrada and the addition of Sam Clayton on percussion, Kenny Gradney on bass, and Paul Barrere on second guitar. George was a masterful and unclichéd slide player (much of his slide playing was done up the guitar's neck rather than down, giving a distinctive sound and approach to his style); the addition of Barrere gave the group even more instrumental muscle. Throwing in R&B veterans Gradney and Clayton gave the band the funk edge it previously lacked.
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Dixie Chicken has greatly influenced any number of bands that have tried to meld funk and rock since, from the Neville Brothers to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What those other funk rock outfits have awkwardly labored for, however, Little Feat did effortlessly and with grace. The band hit its peak with Dixie Chicken, and its subsequent albums on Warner Bros. prior to George's departure and death were well produced but often sounded strained and busy. Unfortunately some of disc one and all of disc two cover recordings by the band during this period; it's tuneful stuff, but often noisy, wordy, and road weary. Disc four compiles a batch of previously unreleased outtakes highlighting George's demos, alternative takes, and oddities that show him and the group at their best. George sounds very much the musical chameleon on his earliest material here; Lightning-Rod Man is quite similar to what Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were doing during the same period in 1966.
Of course Little Feat soldiers on, playing live dates and even releasing albums of new material with a new singer (a woman this time, Shaun Murphy, a bluesy belter who sounds similar to Bonnie Raitt) from time to time. The liner notes and interviews by former Rolling Stone writer Bud Scoppa are informative and respectful but way over the top when he tries to equate the band of today with the one led by Lowell George.
This critical approach often is unfair to working musicians who do the best they can by playing what they know best in bands that probably should have called it quits a long time ago. Nonetheless this box set shouldn't have been a vanity release with almost two and a half discs of padding and filler. It brings to mind the 1998 Booker T & and the MGs box set, Time Is Tight, which includes too much material cut by the group in the years following the death of original drummer Al Jackson. You don't easily replace an Al Jackson or a Lowell George. You break up and find something else to do if you're smart and want to be kind to your fans.
By the way, the first three Little Feat albums on Warner Bros. are still available on compact disc. It's not a box set, but the music sure sounds good and complete.