The greatest American rock band, if such a beast can be captured, wasn’t The Doors — Morrison’s putrid poetry hasn’t aged well, and wasn’t very good to start with, come to think of it. Creedence Clearwater Revival is in the running, but they really weren’t a rock band, being remembered instead for the incredible run of Top 10 singles Fogerty cranked out. Great stuff.
Nope, it really comes down to a battle between two bands — the original line-up of the Band, and Little Feat, circa 1970-1981. Considering that a large part of the Band were Canadian, it’s not a big stretch to remove them from consideration entirely, which, since I’m the monkey with a typewriter at the moment, I will do. That leaves us with Lowell George and his band of merry men, Little Feat.
The Feat played boogie music, which is as complete a statement as “Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries”. Complete, and completely lacking. George created music that while appearing simple and straightforward on the surface (much like the slow moving duck that is placid above the water and paddling like hellfire underneath) was actually a complex and engaging brew of country, funk and rock that even at it’s most basic — such as the trucker anthem “Willin'” — is a delicately crafted arrangement of guitar, piano and chorus that has endured the decades to become one of those songs everyone knows. How many people can lay claim to that? Hell, George did it so often, and with such bodacious skill that he made it look too damn easy. Take “Sailin’ Shoes”. How can a song that sounds like a Sunday morning Primitive Baptist church Gospel sing along contain the phrase “Lady in a turban and a cocaine tree” — and what in the hell is a cocaine tree? Or the hapless newlywed of “Dixie Chicken” that realizes, far too late, of his ruination at the hands of a Southern Belle.
Lowell George was a masterful slide guitarist, an unconventional, but starkly passionate vocalist and a dynamic songwriter and producer. But more than all of these talents — more talents than generally exist in a single band, much less a singular man — was his talent as a storyteller. His characters feel real because they ARE real — from “Easy to Slip” or “Cold, Cold, Cold” to the autobiographical “Rock and Roll Doctor”, George created characters and situations that rival the best fiction of Faulkner. We’ve all known a “Fat Man in the Bathtub” with the blues, shared drinks while singing “Dixie Chicken” or hummed the chorus of “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” when we find ourselves in a jam.
The rest of Feat, Paul Barrere on guitar, Bill Payne on keyboards, bassist Kenny Gradney, Richie Hayward on drums and Sam Clayton on percussion fleshed out Lowell’s stumbling rhythms and fractured time signatures and created a seamless rock and roll orchestra — a sound so full that live it could sound like a perfectly in tune freight train. Listen to the live document “Waiting for Columbus” to get a glimpse of what is occurring behind George’s vocals. Pianos and guitars play hide and seek with Gradney’s impertinent bass lines, and the interplay of drums and percussion sound as if one human had four arms and at least three feet. Scary stuff, when you realize just how easily they were able to turn it on-and sad at the same time, when you lament just how rare it all was, and how utterly vain an attempt it is to try and recapture it.
Which, unfortunately, the band has tried to do. From 1988 on the remaining members of a once great band have created slick, credible boogie music, which is about as kin to the art of Lowell George as a Yugo is to the creations of Benz and Ferrari. Still, this version of the band is only represented on one disc out of four, and the final disc contains unreleased George-era Feat, and even some cuts from before the days of the band. The packaging of the set is first rate, with a 75-page book that examines the life and times of one of the great ones.
Lowell George danced away into the twilight far too early, leaving a decade of classic Feat records and a single solo release (1979’s “Thanks I’ll Eat It Here”) to remind us of the powerful force one man with a vision, a guitar and a socket wrench can create. Or to quote the man himself: “If you wanna feel real nice / Just ask the Rock and Roll Doctor’s advice”. Truer words never spoken.