The problem with answering that question is the band itself. It's often acted like it didn't even want to consider creating its own terms. Until recently, that is. Little Feat, after many years of searching and struggle, finally appears comfortable with its own existence, comfortable enough to begin tearing at the seams of the Lowell George straitjacket that's frequently restricted these rock and roll veterans. Which brings us right back to our introductory inquiry: will Little Feat ever be judged on its own terms?
For better or worse, the answer is not likely. Far too many folks still equate Little Feat with Lowell George, the idiosyncratic genius who led the group into cult stardom during the 1970s. His personal stamp has been indelibly affixed to the band. And for good reason: George was a singular talent, his musical gifts instantly recognizable -- that urgently bluesy voice, that deliciously elliptical, genre-bending songwriting style and that soulfully stinging slide guitar were unmistakable. But George was also a mess. He was a junkie who, in his later years, increasingly relied on his bandmates for material and ideas. He was a perfectionist who ultimately became consumed by his own demons. Finally, one summer day in 1979, he self-destructed, the victim of a drug-related heart attack.
George's ugly demise instantly qualified him for rock and roll romanticization and deification. What's more, George's mammoth influence and untimely death virtually precluded any attempt to keep Little Feat going, or even, years later, to resurrect the band without running into major problems. Not that that stopped founding members Bill Payne and Ritchie Hayward from giving it a try in 1988 with the release of Let It Roll.
Perhaps they were naive to think they could pull the rebirth off cleanly, but keyboardist Payne and drummer Hayward -- along with longtime Featmen Paul Barrere (guitar), Sam Clayton (percussion) and Kenny Gradney (bass) -- felt they had a genuine claim to Little Feat's heritage. After all, they had written many of Feat's more memorable tunes, and they were certainly the guys who had brought all those notes so beautifully to life in concert.
Yet the new Little Feat didn't help its cause much when it brought in a George-sound-alike named Craig Fuller, whose vocals only drew unflattering comparisons to the late leader. It was like Little Feat couldn't give up the ghost of George. They continued this course through three uneven albums, sessions that always felt like highly sanitized versions of old Feat material.
But here it is 1995 and things are beginning to change. Little Feat has taken a courageous step in the wake of another loss. The group has hired vocalist and songwriter Shaun Murphy to replace Fuller, who left the band in 1993 citing road fatigue. Murphy gives Little Feat a new tone. She brings not only a tough, Bonnie Raitt-like vocal presence to the band but also a distinctly female perspective to the songwriting. And she fits into the Little Feat mix quite comfortably; none of band's unique polyrhythmic pull feels compromised.
''The toughest thing was trying to figure out, once Craig left the band, what we should do, period. Should we continue as six people and let it go at that? Get another guy? I just didn't know what to do, to tell you the truth.'' Payne says. ''I finally decided if we're going to take a chance on something, let's take it to the wall. I've heard all the stuff with regard to Craig Fuller, whether he was good or sounded too much like Lowell, whatever was going on. I just thought, 'Well, let's just go with [Shaun].'''
There seems to be a letting-go process at work here. Payne and the rest of the band don't feel as trapped by their past as they once did. The addition of Murphy is the first indication. Another is the music found on Little Feat's latest CD, Ain't Had Enough Fun. The 13-song disc, much of which was cut live, feels looser and less painfully self-conscious than previous efforts. The whole attitude appears to be, ''The hell with it. This is our band now. We'll do what we want.'' It suits the musicians well.
It also begs another question: what brought about this change of heart and mind? The answer, in part, is loss. Heavy and hard-to-reconcile loss. The band lost an unofficial member last year when Neon Park, its longtime cover artist, died from Lou Gehrig's disease. The death hit Payne particularly hard. He and Park were close friends; they often exchanged ideas on art, philosophy and life. One of the songs on Ain't Had Enough Fun, ''Borderline Blues,'' was based on a poem Payne wrote about Park. One poignant quatrain goes to the heart of their relationship: ''Neon lights will guide me / Take us all to a better place / Hang on, hang on / Wait for me, just wait for me.''
''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.