Interview: Jamie Hailstone
Still marching on
The original funk sole brothers
Adored by critics and fellow musicians alike, Little Feat has proved to be one of the greatest blues rock outfits of all time. Formed by the legendary Lowell George in 1969, the group released a string of classic albums like ”Dixie Chicken“ and ”Waiting for Columbus“, before Lowell’s untimely death in 1979. The remaining band members, aided and abetted by Fred Tackett on guitars and Craig Fuller on vocals, all reunited for ”Let It Roll“ in 1988 and then carried on where they had left off. Craig Fuller left in 1993 and was replaced by another singer, Shaun Murphy. Today the band is still going strong and still play more than a 100 shows a year. Blues Matters caught up with guitarist Paul Barrere while he was on a recent acoustic tour of the UK with Fred Tackett.
Do people come to these acoustic shows expecting Little Feat circa 1973?
I don’t get that impression. I think they turn up wondering how we can interpret these songs with just two guitars and a mandolin. I try to explain to them that the songs are the stars of show, as opposed to the band which is such a force. I think people really appreciate that. It’s fun for us. We have a great time doing it.
Who were the blues singers and guitarists who first inspired you?
The very first one was Mississippi John Hurt. I do a little tag on the end of ‘Down On The Farm’ with ‘Candyman Blues’ and that’s my tip of the hat to my first real inspiration. I was 13 years old. I actually started playing slide back then. From there, I learned about Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and then John Lee Hooker. Then I got into Hendrix, BB King, Freddie King, Albert King – the King family (laughs).
Was there a big blues scene in California during the 1960s?
There was a good blues following back then. There was a club in Hollywood called the Ash Grove, which Taj Mahal actually worked at and he gave guitar and harmonica lessons there. Ry Cooder was starting out and there was a good folk presence. I wound up taking two guitar lessons from this lady in Silverlake. She was going to teach me folk music, but she took off for the Newport Folk Festival – this had to be 1961 or 62 – and she never came back! She taught me five chords and from then on I just taught myself.
How did you first meet Lowell George?
I had known Lowell through my older brothers. He was at school with my older brothers and so would be three years ahead of me. I would see him play with his different bands across Los Angeles. In 1969, when he was forming Little Feat he asked me to audition on the bass and I failed miserably.
You joined Little Feat in 1972, shortly after the release of ”Sailin’ Shoes“ and the departure of bass player Roy Estrada, who left to join Captain Beefheart.
There Lowell was with a record that needed to be promoted with no bass player. That’s when I got the call to become the second guitarist. When they hired Kenny [Gradney] he said he knew this great percussionist he’d been working with for the last three years with Delanie and Bonney – Sam Clayton – so the three of us joined together. I remember our first rehearsal was on the big Warner Bros studio lot, on a set which had all these giant teeth on it. They were about 15 foot tall. I think Bill Cosby did a Crest Toothpaste commercial on it, or something like that. It was very surreal to say the least.
Was it quite intimidating joining a band that was already established?
No, not really. Even though I thought they were the most incredible band, I don’t think Sam or Kenny even knew who they were. If you listen to the difference between ”Sailin’ Shoes“ and ”Dixie Chicken“, it became a lot funkier. We kind of brought that. We figured we were bringing something to the table. Richie [Hayward], Billy [Payne] and Lowell were just happy as clams to have it all happening like that.
”Feats Don’t Fail Me Now“ was the first one which went gold, wasn’t it?
Actually, it didn’t go gold, but the initial sales were almost 200,000 which was a lot more than they had for ”Dixie Chicken“. It was quite comforting. We had actually broken up after ”Dixie Chicken“. Then Warner Bros convinced Lowell to put it back together and we went to Baltimore to make ”Feats Don’t Fail Me Now“ and that’s when we started to enjoy a little bit of success.
Looking back, were the 1970s a really turbulent time?
The only time when it wasn’t turbulent was when we were playing. We all seemed to mesh very well when we were on stage. Let’s just say there were outside influences (laughs). A lot of them.
As you got more successful in the 1970s, the problems seemed to get a lot worse.
Oh absolutely! A little taste of success can open up a lot of avenues and doors. Everybody was getting a lot of studio work. We really wanted to go on the road, but Lowell didn’t want to tour. There were conflicts, but musically it was always the best thing that ever happened to any of us. It’s why the band got back together.
The gig you did for the Warner Bros tour at the Rainbow Theatre in London, in 1974, is still regarded as one of the best concerts ever seen in this country. What do you remember about that show?
The one with the Doobie Brothers? It was hard to finish the tour after that. The New Music Express put a tag on it, and you have to understand that everybody in the Doobie Brothers were very good close friends, but there was a quote that said should the Doobie Brothers be called the ‘Smothered Brothers’ after being trampled by Little Feat. That was a magical show. I wish I had a tape of that show.
Why do you think the gig had the impact it had?
I think our cult status preceded us. The fact we were all good musicians created this buzz. There were a lot of folks in the audience who were not there to see the Doobie Brothers. We played great and our sound was so completely different to anyone at the time that it just took everyone by surprise. Lord knows, we’ve been back since and done some really horrendous shows. What goes around comes around (laughs).
When you brought back the band in the mid 80s, how scary was it?
It was a bit tense. It’s funny. We thought we would do our first show under the radar at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. We thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it was a huge deal. There was international press. Bonnie Raitt came and sat in with us on a couple of songs. It was like the Rainbow show in some regard. I heard Stevie Winwood was in the audience. Then we played a show in Los Angeles and Bonnie was joining us on stage. She kept whispering Eric Clapton’s here, no really he’s here and he wants to play. So he got up and joined us on stage. It was lovely. After the show we just sat and talked. He had the same attitude that we had - it’s not a competition, it’s about having a good time and being artistic.
Craig Fuller got a lot of stick from the critics, didn’t he?
He did get a lot of bad rap comparisons. When he sung some of Lowell’s songs he sounded way too hauntingly familiar for some people. Like Lowell, he didn’t like being on the road. He was married and he just wanted out. Now that the kids are grown up, he’s anxious to get back out there!
After Shaun joined, you went independent as a band?
We left Warner Bros after ”Representing the Mambo“ and we had one record with Morgan Creek, who were more of a film company. Then we were with Zoo Records for a record or two and then we decided to start Hot Tomato Records. We have done the one studio record, but we’ve done a lot of live things – taking a page out of the Grateful Dead. We are thinking about going and making another studio record soon. We’ve got one we did with Jimmy Buffett, which hopefully will be out in the spring, but we need to do one for Hot Tomato.
Lowell George seems to be a forgotten figure these days. Why do you think that is?
It seemed to me that for a long time they wouldn’t reference Little Feat without Lowell George, and now they’re referencing Little Feat without him. It’s hard to say. He never had a plan to be Lowell George and Little Feat. It was always a group thing. I mean, it’s not Bill Payne and Little Feat now or Paul Barrere and Little Feat. But back in the day, he was such a strong presence and wrote most of the songs that people would think he wrote ‘Oh Atlanta’ which Bill wrote, or ‘All That You Dream’ which I wrote. A lot of people have discovered Little Feat late that didn’t really know the whole Lowell story.
A lot of musicians will say that Little Feat was one of the greatest bands in the world. How does that make you feel?
People tell me that almost every night after shows. We either got them through the hard times or ”Waiting for Columbus“ got them through college. Little kids come up and say they’ve been listening to us since they were born and then I sit and scratch my head and go how come we’re not millionaires (laughs). You know what - it doesn’t really matter. It is what it is. I’m the kind of person who’s been through a lot of life experiences and a lot of hardships, and found my way back. The most satisfying thing, other than my family, is playing music. So, if I can play music and earn a living at the same time then God bless America, except for George Bush!
Are there any bands out there you really rate at the moment?
I like the Dave Matthews Band. They’re fine musicians and have a distinctive sound. Leftover Salmon, who managed to break up, but hopefully they’ll get back together. I like String Cheese Incident. I think they’re very interesting. I love Warren Haynes from Government Mule. He’s a great player.
You recently produced Coco Montoya’s ”Dirty Deal“ CD. How was that?
I love Coco. Being able to produce that record was just a treat for me. Especially, doing ‘Put The Shoe On The Other Foot’ – the Albert Collins tune. We did that live in the studio, with live mikes. When we played it for the head of the record company, he hated it. We said how can you hate that? It’s the real deal. I wanted to make a record which was like the old Chess Records. He finally got the mix he liked, but I thought that it just kicked.
How long have you known Coco?
I’ve known him for 10-15 years. Richie has known him for longer, because Richie used to drum with Walter Trout and Coco would be sitting in with them.
Richie’s been about a bit. Hasn’t he?
Oh yeah! (laughs) And still is! I love Richie.
Lowell George used to tell a story about how he met Howlin’ Wolf? (a young Lowell asked the legendary blues singer to sign his guitar, but Chester Burnett told him to f**k off) Has something like that ever happened to you?
Billy, Richie and I got asked to a tribute at Madison Square Garden for John Lee Hooker, and we were playing with Willie Dixon. At the rehearsal, Willie Dixon says ‘hi boys, this is how we are going to do it’. We start out on the song and he says ‘hold it’ and looks back at Riche and shouts ‘play quieter’. That was as close as I’ve ever been to any admonishment. The first time I met John Lee Hooker was when I was playing with Catfish Hodge. We were opening for him in Charlottesville, Virginia. Catfish knew John Lee, because they were both from Detroit. Catfish said ‘John, I want to introduce you to Paul Barrere, he plays with Little Feat’ and John goes ‘I heard of Little Feat. You guys are good’. That was it!
What do you think of the jam band in the US?
There are some I like a lot. When you see people like Warren [Haynes] play. He will do extended solos, but he does them in such a unique way. He devises his solos so they really soar. I think what Little Feat does, and Warren does, and other bands who have been around for a while is they realise it’s about doing standards. Within the framework of the improvisation, you have to tell a story. There’s a beginning, middle and an end. I can listen to anybody who has that sensibility to them.
What are your favourite songs?
‘All That You’ Dream’, ‘Down On The Farm’ and ‘Old Folks Boogie’. People say what’s your favourite song? It’s like who is your favourite kid. Some of the stuff we did on our last CD ”Kickin’ It At The Barn“ is just as good. ‘Why Don’t It Look Like The Way That It Talk’, ‘I Do What The Telephone Tells Me To Do’ and ‘Heaven Forsaken’ are three of the finest tunes that I’ve co-written in a long time. I don’t have a lot of songs that I have recorded which I don’t like, because if I don’t like it, why record it?
Do you still enjoy playing live music?
Oh yeah! I enjoy it so much, that I’ll endure the travelling. The saving grace is the two hours on stage. It floats my boat. It makes it happen.
How long do you think you can carry on playing?
I have a 10 year old daughter, so I can’t see myself retiring for the next eight years (laughs). We could be doing this thing that Fred and I do forever. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind doing it, as long as we make enough money to hire someone to carry everything, set it all up and change the strings. We could be real crotchety old men doing it. It’s amazing to me. I wrote ‘Old Folks Boogie’ when I was 24 years old. I’m 59 now. I do it completely different now. I do it in an open E tuning, which is like Son House. Hear I am, sitting down, playing ‘Old Folks Boogie’. Back in those days, it was live fast and die young. I’m glad I didn’t! (laughs) JH