Ask the common music epicure, and Little Feat reached their zenith with 1978’s Waiting for Columbus. The quintessential live album, mixing the Allman Brothers’ blues based jams with New Orleans rhythms, it also presented Lowell George’s swan song.
Which then reaches a contentious point regarding Little Feat’s success. The majority of the band’s great songwriting can be heaped with overflowing romantic panegyrics upon Lowell George. He was ridiculously talented, a synthesist of various sounds, endowed with a Frank Zappa influenced droll wit, and gifted with a tremendous set of lungs. But even in listening to Waiting for Columbus the band’s other members were not just beginning to assert themselves but had started to gestate George’s brain trust. Keyboardist Bill Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere in particular were writing more adventurous material, which had a Steely Dan by way of Nawlins vibe.
While the band’s improvisational spirit, their ability to play with the creativity of, say, the Grateful Dead but with the tautness of a really good band, was a direct reflection of Payne and Barrere incessant practicing. Payne in interviews makes the comment that by 1975 George wasn’t around enough to tell them “yes” or “no” on given issues. Likewise, George also didn’t deem rehearsal time a decent use of “time”. Which meant Payne and Barrere had begun to spend their time extemporizing on the themes, waiting for George to appear; or as irony would probably have it, waiting for Columbus.
As songwriters the duo have often been undersold as well on Waiting for Columbus. Tracks such as “Time Loves a Hero”, “All that You Dream”, and “Oh Atlanta” prove Payne and Barrere could not necessarily match their savant hero George’s ability, but could at least tap into those spirits. Likewise their songs were versatile and provided a decent accent to George’s dark dank dances of aperitifs, cheap alcohol, and bad cocaine; the true stories of his “time”.
It’s this songwriting ability which makes Kickin’ It at the Barn, Little Feat’s latest release successful. The band, more than ever, arguably can jam. They can play for hours, as the average track time of six minutes attests. But the lyrics and the song, of conveying meaning in the context of these extemporaneous whimsies make the difference.
“Corazones y Sombras,” by far the album’s best track, takes a Marty Robbins commencement before launching into traditional mariachi motifs, and subsequently vacillating between the two to document a rambunctious rampage through dusty Mexican streets. As the music switches, so does the language from English to Spanish, the harmonies from contemporary three part to ranchero vocal blasts. Payne’s story about the trip almost becomes superceded by the melodies themselves, as they play a bigger role in the fable than the words.
Others such as the slinky “I’d Be Lyin” and the sly shuffling “Night on the Town” head back to the standard Little Feat bar, meandering through a humid, brume baking night. There are dancers and harlequins, and a bad downtown bar with Ignatius hanging around donning his standard green hat. The cops accost him, he mentions his mom heading back with some little cakes. “Tortes!” he shouts, shaking his jowls. Vocalist Shawn Murphy mentions “he’s lyin’” and the cop makes Ignatius run, leaving his green hat behind in the wake of Fred Tackett’s Rolling Stone rampage “In a Town Like This”.
But by the closing of the hushed acoustic “Bill’s River Blues” the story’s moment and lines have frayed and been lost, the band’s creative mojo exhausted. “Corazones y Sombras” was the centerpiece, the glimpse into the group’s collective brilliance as songwriters and producers. For just one track on Kickin’ It at the Barn, Little Feat expunged the specter of Lowell George. Damn shame they can’t quite do it over the course of a whole album.