Groupie Grooves

The band that gave us "Dixie Chicken" keeps on tickin'.

To paraphrase George Carlin, people love to accumulate "stuff." Through the years, lots of it accrues in dusty boxes, dark attic spaces and basement cabinets. So when Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne was planning a move, part of the job included sifting through artifacts he'd collected from the band's 30-plus years of existence.

That included lots and lots of tapes, some of superior quality and meticulously documented, others with blank labels that looked like they'd lived in the seat crevices of Johnson administration-era vehicles. But on an old quarter-inch reel, Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere found a bit of Feat history: the first known live recording of the band from a 1971 show right here in Houston.

An unearthed handbill reproduced in the band's recently released live compilations, Raw Tomatos Vol. 1 and Ripe Tomatos Vol. 1, shows that, for a mere two bucks, one could have caught the first Texas appearance of the group (and an opening act, Kuba) at a club called Of Our Own, which was in the building that now houses the Rice Village Half Price Books.

"Texas has always been very good to us through the years," says Payne, who was born in Moody, Texas, and spent summers in the Hill Country. And though he doesn't recall much of the actual show or the raw recordings that survived (including "Texas Rose Café"), he does have a more vivid memory of the date.

"That would be the first appearance of the Houston Welcoming Committee, some very lovely, lovely girls," he laughs. At the time, Payne had eaten lunch with a friend then employed at Shell Oil, who turned him on to a group of young volunteers who wanted to show the fledgling band a bit of, um, local hospitality.

"Before that, I was thinking that I never wanted to tour again. But in Houston, I changed my mind. It didn't seem so bad!" Of course, this is a band that notes in one song that "Texas is a world all of its own."

But it's the Feat's musical, not social, history that's explored on the two double CDs, offering almost five hours of unreleased music covering the period between 1971 and 2001. Payne and Barrere sifted through hundreds of hours of tapes to select favorite and rare numbers from all phases of the band's life span, along with demos and rerecordings by the current lineup. The Tomatos discs are also the first releases from the band's own newly formed Hot Tomato Records.

Inspired by similar projects from the Grateful Dead, the Dick's Picks and From the Vaults series, Payne hopes eventually the label will stretch into Feat members' side projects, new acts and even publishing. "We wanted to break away from doing business with labels," Payne says. "Artists of our age, they rarely if ever promote you. So I thought that we are as capable as anybody of going to a bank, borrowing money and doing things the way we and our fans want."

Overall, the tracks reflect the off-the-cuff, ramshackle nature of the project. Many of them, mostly from the group's '70s gigs, are revelations that showcase the band's live prowess not explored on their studio releases. Others are tests of patience to all but the most devoted Feat fans.

"We've had a pretty spectacular run, and these records create an overview," he says. "And we're very happy to even be doing this. I mean, most bands have the life span of a fruit fly."

Little Feat's life began in 1969, interestingly enough, with Frank Zappa. It was he who first suggested that his guitarist, Lowell George, had too much talent to remain a sideman and encouraged him to form his own group. While commenting on George's unusually small and fat feet, Zappa drummer Jimmy Carl Black inadvertently named the new group.

Taking Zappa's bassist, Roy Estrada, and recruiting Payne and drummer Richie Hayward, George began to create his vision of a boogie rock band that would also incorporate elements of jazz, blues, soul and country -- a melting pot sound that, while common today, was unusual at the time.

As George was the main singer and songwriter, his offbeat efforts were the main thread of their self-titled debut and its follow-up, Sailin' Shoes. But, disappointed with the band's reception, he temporarily broke up the group in 1972, reconvening it later that year and adding Sam Clayton (percussion) and Paul Barrere (vocals, guitar). Kenny Gradney replaced Estrada on the bass.

It was this lineup that made the band a cult favorite and fleshed out George's vision on records like Dixie Chicken, Feats Don't Fail Me Now and Time Loves a Hero. Along with the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, they become best known for their live shows. It's not surprising that their live double-LP Waiting for Columbus remains the best representation of the band on record.

By the late '70s, though, George's spiraling drug problems and mental fragility began to derail the group, and Barrere took on the leadership role. After recording a solo record in 1979, George announced that the group would disband and then died shortly thereafter of a heart attack.

The surviving members reunited in 1988, asking Craig Fuller to step into George's sailin' shoes and adding second guitarist Fred Tackett. Subsequent records did not approach the band's creative peak, but they remained a solid live attraction. When Fuller left in 1993, Little Feat boldly chose a woman as its new lead singer: noted background and tour vocalist Shaun Murphy, whose bluesy, Bonnie Raitt-style tone fit the band well.

"Lowell's legacy is still very much alive," Payne says, admitting that there were ethical and musical dilemmas over the band's decision to continue a post-George career. "And you do what material resonates with people. We're not afraid to play 'Dixie Chicken' every night because we love playing it and it's what [audiences] want to hear. But we play a lot of [newer] material as well. It's a balance."

When asked about the many 2002 touring versions of classic rock bands who, unlike Little Feat, may share just a name and a tenuous connection to the lineups that created their best-known material (Hey! We've got the original drummer!), Payne shrugs. "As long as consumers are aware of what they're getting, it's fine, though it may not be the most honorable way of doing it," he offers. "I just don't think people should be blindsided by it."

Today, Little Feat is enjoying renewed interest, as new listeners embrace them as forefathers of the jam-band genre, a status that wasn't brought home to Payne until the band toured with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his group.

"I love the [jam] bands of today that are pushing the envelope. And there's a certain forgiveness that takes place with their fans," he says. "They're like race fans -- they expect an accident to take place every so often." Payne also adds that it takes "a lot of concentration" to make jamming look easy, but has enjoyed playing with members of bands like the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon in recent shows.

As for the Houston Welcoming Committee, most of them left behind their Almost Famous pasts long ago. The hip-hugger-clad Bayou City belles have settled into real lives, jobs and families.

Payne, who still keeps in touch with some of the committee, sees those days as fun snapshots of another era. "Hey, some of them even have children now!" he laughs. "We all had to grow up sometime."

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