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Feats of Courage

From the death of Lowell George on, Little Feat has learned to grow through loss

''You walk through life and suffer pains that are indescribable, that can't be ignored. You either rage or begin a difficult process called letting go,'' the 46-year-old pianist says. ''I think with all this stuff your body has a way of telling you when you need to regroup. Mine did that. I was hardly a wild-living person. I wasn't out like going crazy, doing drugs or anything to be quite honest. I got shut down for a couple of months and it was a real eye opener. I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to have to do what I do passionately, but also be prudent and not try to cover too many bases when I don't have to.

''Neon was truly one of the most courageous people I've ever met,'' he continues. ''For him to be whittled down inch by inch and still retain his mind and his humor, it was something to really see. I will forever feel really grateful that he allowed me to continue the conversations with him just almost up until the very end. In an unspoken sense, we knew when our last conversation would be. We just knew it.''

All of Little Feat's recent losses -- Park's death, the departure of Fuller and the folding of the group's previous label, Morgan Creek (they signed with Zoo Records late last year) -- have bestowed upon the members a sort of ironic peace. Loss can sometimes do that to a person. One of the things Payne now seems at peace with is George's considerable legacy, and how many longtime Feat fans want to protect that legacy with all their earthly powers. There was a time when Payne felt a need to defend everything his current band did; to a certain extent, he still does. But there's also a noticeable change in his attitude. There's an anger inside, a feeling that the public can kiss his ass if they don't like what he does. It's an arguably healthy perspective for someone trying to shake a demanding ghost such as George.

''We're never going to reach the people who think Lowell was Little Feat,'' Payne says, momentarily dropping his mild-mannered persona. ''Personally, I don't give a fuck if we ever do. I think they've put Lowell in a closet, which is an unfortunate place for Lowell to be.

''To say the guy was the whole ball of wax, he was not. He never was,'' Payne adds. ''I'm not saying everybody who feels that way about Lowell has their head in the sand. A lot of them do. It's irritating on one sense, and on another level, I just think we can't reach them. And who the fuck cares?''

At the same time, Little Feat isn't about to ignore its past. In fact, on Ain't Had Enough Fun, producer Bill Wray encouraged the band to look deeply into its Lowell George-era catalog to figure out what they did best back then -- namely, create a seamless blend of rock, R&B, swamp boogie and blues. When asked if he wasn't simply cannibalizing his past for the benefit of the future, Payne had a perceptive answer. It's one that might seem like a nifty rationalization at first, but it's not. Instead, it's an answer that sounds like a resolution, like the attitude of a man who's in a band that's come to grips with its past and isn't afraid to follow the path that suggests.

''I think the cynical view is, yeah, we're cannibalizing,'' says Payne, who co-produced Fun. ''But the other perspective on it is you have a familiarity that you're comfortable with, that you gravitate to. We have a voice in this band. It's like a lot of people, you have a voice that you use and reasoning that you use in everyday life. It's a foundation.

''I decided to go with what I figured was the foundation of the band,'' he adds. ''It's who we are, what we are and what we do.''

Little Feat plays 8 p.m. Saturday, June 3 at the Houston Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. The Classic Rock All-Stars open. Tickets are $25 and $30. For info, call 988-1020.

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