It’s been 50 years since Bill Payne tried to audition for Frank Zappa in San Francisco. He didn’t reach Zappa, but he did meet songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Lowell George — and the two went on to form Little Feat, the proto-jam band with influences that range from rock ’n’ roll and blues to gospel and jazz, and a distinctive, elastic sound anchored by slide guitar and keyboard licks. Tragic deaths, lineup changes, and long hiatuses ensued. But despite it all, the Feat remain anchored to where they started all those years ago.
“Little Feat is much bigger than anybody in this band — it’s an attitude,” says keyboardist Payne. “It’s a vehicle we’ve been able to use to play and combine genres of music that you’d usually have to be eight to 10 bands to play. It’s still laid out the way Lowell and I laid it out years back.”
That blueprint centered around a philosophy of musical flexibility, which can be summarized thusly: “Let’s keep it elastic.”
That elasticity allowed Little Feat to wind between genres, while regularly producing a roster of hit songs that have become classic rock canon, including “Dixie Chicken,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Sailing Shoes,” “Oh Atlanta,” and “Willin’.” It’s also allowed them to adjust to the changes wrought by time: initially disbanding in 1979, George’s death shortly thereafter, and the eight-year hiatus that followed.
Despite it all, guitarist Paul Barrere, who joined in 1972, thinks that the sound, and the songs, have held up.
“When we put the band back together [in 1987], we made a promise to ourselves that if the sound wasn’t as good as on the old albums that we wouldn’t go forward,” he recalls. “We played ‘Hate to Lose Your Loving’ back to back with ‘Dixie Chicken,’ and you couldn’t tell what era each was from. It was timeless! Because we were so different and so eclectic, you can’t pigeonhole it anywhere.”
Little Feat formed in 1969 when Payne met George, who had been playing with Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. He’d written “Willin’,” a long-haul trucker’s road testimony rich with country twang and blatant drug references: “If you give me weed, whites, and wine / And you show me a sign / I’ll be willin’… to be movin’.”
Zappa was so struck by George’s talent as a songwriter — or so unwilling to play a song about dope — that he instructed George to form his own band. Or so the legend goes.
“That’s true!” Payne confirms. “Granted, I didn’t know why Lowell was forming his own band … Just that he was.”
Barrere joined three years later, having known George since their days at Hollywood High School. He’d auditioned for the band in its earliest days, too.
“I’d been playing in a garage band in Laurel Canyon that was kind of a cross between Led Zeppelin and Captain Beefheart,” he says. George was impressed, and handed Barrere a bass, instructing him to show up at an address for an audition the next day. Not versed in bass guitar — or reading charts — Barrere didn’t make the cut.
“But I did convince him that if he decided he needed a second guitarist, I was right there in the wings,” he says.
Some years later, that’s exactly what happened.
“My friend who was their road manager showed up with Sailing Shoes and said, ‘Learn all these songs and you’re in the band,’ ” Barrere adds. “I was like, ‘No problem man, I’m on it.’ ”
That lineup was when Little Feat began to take off and home in on a distinctive, New Orleans-influenced sound, packing venues with its dynamic live shows.
“People don’t realize that Little Feat was in the forefront of that whole jam band movement,” says Barrere. “In some ways, we were more sophisticated. … Our jams always had, and have, entrance and exit riffs. They have some structure.”
That spontaneity is still a core part of the Little Feat experience.
“We get to improvise, and be musicians more than anything else. I don’t know that I could be in a band that played the same notes night after night,” he says.
Payne, who now primarily plays with The Doobie Brothers, finds that the solos are one of the key differentiating factors in his experience with Little Feat. He also fondly remembers soloing with departed band members Richie Hayward (who passed away in 2010) and George.
“There are solos that I’ve taken with those guys that are like birds in flight, dive bombing the canyons below,” he says.
Hayward and George’s shadows loom large over the band’s legacy, but Payne and Barrere agree that, while irreplaceable, their legendary former members don’t necessarily define them. As he thinks about it, Payne recalls an early experience as a fan of a band with an often changing lineup.
“Back in the day, I went to see The Yardbirds in Pismo Beach,” he says. “I wanted to hear Jeff Beck, and he’s not there! We’re all grumbling, ‘Who’s that guitar player? I guess he’s pretty good…’ And it’s Jimmy Page. That was a real eye-opener.”
“There’s only one Richie Hayward, and there’s only one Lowell George,” Payne continues. “But I think that if you’re honoring the music, then you’re honoring the two of them and, ultimately, you’re honoring the band.”
Honor them they will at a May 28 show at the Fox Theater, a part of Little Feat’s 50th Anniversary Tour. The Feat don’t play together all that often, but when they do, per Payne, it’s like getting together with the oldest and truest of friends. Not much has changed.
Well, Barrere notes, they tour a little less aggressively than they used to.
“Let’s face it: I’m almost 71. Now, we need to work in time to recharge the batteries,” he says. “It’s like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when all those characters get shined up!”
Their experiences in the Bay Area are a little tamer than they used to be, too. Payne recalls a particularly wild night at the Avalon Ballroom that included a few too many hits of LSD, followed by a round of Acapulco Gold at a friend’s apartment in the Haight.
“That was the Bay Area for me back then,” he says. “Being higher than one would ever want to be!”
Despite coming back to earth, Little Feat still know how to fly high while playing live. Payne promises a rocking time, maybe with a surprise guest or two. And Barrere is confident that good vibes are a given.
“I always tell everybody that when they come to a Little Feat show, they’ll leave smiling,” he says. “Get up and dance! And get ready to get blown away.”
Little Feat, Tuesday May 28, 8 p.m., at The Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $55-$95, thefoxoakland.com