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Little Feat: Waiting For Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour
TempleLive, Fort Smith, Arkansas, December 1, 2022
Few 1970s bands enjoy a fanbase like that of Little Feat. Likewise, few recordings, let alone live recordings, are as universally lauded as Waiting For Columbus (Warner Bros., 1978). During a period when a live album typically signaled the end of a recording contract, reflecting the same let's-get-this-over with attitude, WFC, instead serves as an example of a live recording that defined the band making it. In this respect, Little Feat shares the distinction of its best recording being a live one with Peter Frampton (Frampton Comes Alive [A&M Records, 1976]), Cheap Trick (At Budakon [Epic, 1978]), and Motörhead (No Sleep `Til Hammersmith [Bronze Records, 1981]), not to mention, the Allman Brothers (At Fillmore East [Capricorn, 1971]), Rory Gallagher (Irish Tour '74 [Polydor, 1975]), and Humble Pie (Performance Rockin' The Fillmore [A&M Records, 1971]).
WTC also shared the distinction of having been recorded during a period when the band was falling apart and experiencing all of the strain and stress of that dissolution. Conflict often breeds improved and, even, inspired, performances, conflict providing a creative spark. Consider albums like the Beatles' Let It Be (Apple Records, 1970), Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights (Hannibal Records, 1982), and Simon and Garfunkle's Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Columbia Records, 1970) and it is easy to see WFC as part of this group.
Guitarist and composer Lowell George founded Little Feat in 1969 after leaving the Mothers of Invention. He contacted Bill Payne, a keyboardist who previously didn’t make the MOI, and then tracked down the drummer from his old band, the Factory, Richie Hayward. To finish off the rhythm section, George pinched bassist Roy Estrada from the MOI, taking them into the studio to record their eponymous debut (Little Feat, [Warner Bros., 1971]), and, a year later, delivering Sailin' Shoes (Warner Bros., 1972).
The next year, 1973, brought some personnel shuffling, with Kenny Gradney replacing Roy Estrada while bringing in percussionist Sam Clayton and guitarist Paul Barrere, forming the classic Little Feat sextet responsible for the heart of their discography: Dixie Chicken (Warner Bros., 1973), Feat's Don't Fail Me Now (Warner Bros., 1974), and The Last Record Album (Warner Bros., 1975). The latter of these recordings began to reflect a shift in composing duties, with George writing only three of the eight songs. This trend continued on Time Loves A Hero (Warner Bros. 1977). During this period, Payne and Barrere began expanding their presence in composing and singing while George diminished his.
George's disassociation from the band was magnified during the recording of Time Loves A Hero, as Payne and Barrere directed the band's music toward jazz-rock fusion, as evidenced on both "Red Streamliner" and the instrumental “Day at the Dog Races.” George responded poorly to this shift, his attention attenuated by increasing disgruntlement and personal excess. Feeling marginalized and stagnant he began to fade from the Little Feat picture, not unlike Mick Jones previously with the Rolling Stones between Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed.
But George's creative flame with the band did not extinguish before rallying to the idea of recording a live album. Thrown a bone by the band to produce the album, George set about putting the show together. Little Feat was already six-deep in releases, the most recent being Time Loves A Hero, which was primed for some live performance support. There was no shortage of good material. Having recently relocated from southern California to Washington D.C., the group decided to run tape on their performances at the Lisner Auditorium (August 8-10, 1977), which followed dates at London's Rainbow Theater (August 1-4, 1977), where the band had made a notable appearance in 1975. While in England, the band added dates in Birmingham (July 25), Newcastle July 26-27), and Manchester (July 29) to jumpstart their project.
Waiting For Columbus was released on February 10, 1978. The two-LP package resulted from George curating selections from the Rainbow and Lisner shows, seven concerts in all. An added bonus was the presence of the Tower Of Power horn section (who had previously recorded with the band on their album Feats Don't Fail Me Now) at the Rainbow shows. The result was one of the finest live rock recordings made, one that could be mentioned in the same company as Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs And Englishmen (A&M, 1970), the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!: The Rolling Stones in Concert (London1970), and the Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971).
In 2022, Little Feat began to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of the commercial release of WFC with an extensive tour that kicked off on March 4 at the Southern Theater in Columbus, Ohio, and was scheduled to end on December 17 at the Boulder Theater, Boulder, Colorado. The tour is bittersweet with the respect that this Little Feat is one reconstituted, a final iteration of the sextet properly founded for the release of Dixie Chicken: Lowell George, Paul Barrere, Bill Payne, Kenny Gradney, Sam Clayton, and Richie Hayward. George exited early, dying of a drug overdose, on July 24, 1979 while on tour to support his solo recording, Thanks, I'll Eat It Here (Warner Bros., 1979).
George's death effectively ended the band until 1988, when the remaining members reformed, adding longtime associate, Fred Tackett on guitar, and going on to release nine recordings through 2012 (with Pure Prarie League's Craig Fuller and noted backup vocalist Shaun Murphy passing through) having endured the death of drummer Richie Hayward on August 12, 2010. The band went on hiatus for the next seven years before the remaining members joined the jam band moe, backed by the Turkuaz Horns and the Ramble Band Horns, to perform WFC in its entirety. Little Feat continued to tour with the drummer Gabe Ford through the death of Paul Barrere on October 26, 2019. Barrere was replaced by Gregg Allman's music director Scott Sharrard and Ford by Tony Leone (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phil Lesh and Friends) bringing us to the present band, who performed WFC at the TempleLive Auditorium in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on December 1, 2022.
The band was entering its final stretch of shows for the Waiting for Columbus 45th Anniversary Tour, which is scheduled to end in December. The Fort Smith Show was held at TempleLive, part of a collective of venues located in Fort Smith, Wichita, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. The Fort Smith performance space uses the Masonic Temple Building located at 200 North 11th Street the old downtown section. The structure was built using Bedford Stone and houses three large banquet halls, a full basement with a commercial kitchen, and a full auditorium with seating for 1,100 people, where the concert was held.
The performance of classic rock albums in their entirety gained popularity in the 1990s when Phish would present their "Costumes" concerts during the band's Halloween shows, beginning with the Beatles' White Album (Apple Records, 1968) and going on to address such classic recordings as Talking Heads' Remain In Light (Sire, 1980) and the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street (Rolling Stones Records, 1972). In 2010, in a deep bow to Little Feat, Phish presented Waiting For Columbus at Atlantic City, garnering wide acclaim. Behind Phish is Gov't Mule similarly presenting Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M, 1970) and the Tedeschi Trucks Band's reading of Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs on Layla Revisited (Fantasy, 2021).
It was not just other bands performing seminal works of other artists. Some original artists caught on (or got old enough) to do the same thing. Witness the Allman Brothers Band performing At Fillmore East (Capricorn Records on Lockn’ Festival, Arlington, VA - September 7, 2014 (MunchMix, 2014), John Hiatt and the Goners playing all of Slow Turning (A&M, 1988), while Kansas reprised Leftoverure (Kishner, 1976) in 2019, and with the Black Crowes touring on Shake Your Money Maker (Def American, 1990). These are great musical days for Baby Boomers heading into their respective lyrical Autumns.
Recounting a classic recording in performance removes the element of programming surprise as the listener knows the order in which the songs will be played. Thus, the drama of a live performance of this type must derive from elsewhere. The setlist for the WTC 45th Anniversary Tour was nominally in the order of songs appearing on the original 2-LP set. For those rabid fans who not only drank the Little Feat Kool-Aid but drowned in it, the mere hint of the opening "Join The Band" is all the drama necessary. But Little Feat is too fine an ensemble to simply rely on the obvious. They threw a couple of curveballs to keep the audience guessing.
One dramatic element added to the new LF sound is an extended, sinewy introduction to songs like "Fat Man In The Bathtub" and "Time Loves A Hero." This particular element has a light Carribian feel brought to the band when Fred Tackett formally joined the band in 1988 and continued to refine with the recent addition of Sharrard to the lineup. The sound is taut and delicate with more space between instruments, the mark of this rejuvenated band (hear this on the single of "Fatman In The Bathtub" released shortly before the tour started). The resulting effect is to temper the fire introduced by Lowell Goerge originally with a deceptively delicate lattice of sound that exposes the funk and soul of the pieces. The best compositions are durable, standing up to all sorts of interpretations and improvisations.
The second dramatic element is the surprise inclusion of a song not included in the original release. In this concert it was an easy one to spot: it is the mashup of "Spanish Moon" and "Skin It Back," two songs meant to rub bellies if there ever were any. On the original release of WFC, only the former was included. While the latter was prominently featured in the series of shows from which WFC derived, George chose to include one of his compositions rather than one by Paul Barrere.
The third element that sharpens a performance's drama is the interpolation of a well-known song within one originally released. The band seamlessly infused Muddy Water's "Long Distance Call" into the center of "Apolitical Blues," extending the song's length and gravity. It proved to be an exciting showstopper during the final third of the show, anticipating a searing "Sailin' Shoes." I have always felt that side 4 of the original 2-LP release was the weak sister of an otherwise solid performance. It seems that the new blood in the band elevated this material to match the remainder of the original recording.
The band came on the stage and drummer Tony Leone kicked off "Fat Man In The Bathtub" from the band's studio masterpiece Dixie Chicken. Sharrard dispatched his slide guitar and vocal duties admirably while Payne provided yet one more inventive keyboard break, extending this trend into The Last Record Album (Warner Bros., 1975)'s "All That You Dream" and "Mercenary Territory." The songs were given an extended, sinewy treatment, taut and delicate with more space between instruments, the mark of this rejuvenated band (hear this on the single release kicking off the tour). The same technique introduces "Time Loves A Hero" from the album of the same name that spawned the original tour.
Sharrard and Payne traded vocals all night. Those in attendance were seasoned fans (average age, 50 years old), singing along with each song. Payne's "Oh Atlanta" proved a grand crowd vehicle. Tony Leone on drums sang "Old Folks Boogie" as Payne stretched into a keyboard solo. Tackett showed his chops by using a drumstick and tapping the guitar strings in the introduction of "Time Loves A Hero," as well as his trumpet acumen on "Dixie Chicken" and mandolin playing on "Willin'/Don't Bogart That Joint."
The concert possessed its own velocity, fueled by audience expectation flashed burned with nostalgia. It was obvious that the original recording was meaningful to this group of late Baby Boomers and the performance, even lacking half of the original members in Lowell George, Paul Barrere, and Richie Hayward. The show only lacked the presence of the Midnight Ramble Horns (Sex Mob's Steve Bernstein on trumpet; Erik Lawrence on baritone/alto saxophones and Jay Collins playing tenor saxophone) who played an earlier show seen by this writer at the Gilloz Theater in Springfield, MO. That quibble aside, this show and tour presented an underappreciated American band in its twilight, doing what they always did best... performing live.
Setlist: Join the Band; Fat Man in the Bathtub; All That You Dream; Oh Atlanta; Old Folks Boogie; Time Loves a Hero; Day or Night; Mercenary Territory; Spanish Moon / Skin It Back; Dixie Chicken / Tripe Face Boogie; Willin' / Don't Bogart That Joint / Willin'; A Apolitical Blues; Sailin' Shoes; Feats Don't Fail Me Now; Encore: Let it Roll.
Musicians: Scott Sharrard: guitar, vocals; Fred Tackett: guitar, mandolin, trumpet, vocals; Bill Payne (OG): keyboards, vocals; Kenny Gradney (OG): bass; Sam Clayton (OG): congas, vocals; Tony Leone: drums, vocals.