When it comes to Little Feat, most people tend to refer to later albums such as 1973’s Dixie Chicken, or 1978’s double live LP Waiting For Columbus. Signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1970, thanks to Lowell George’s persuasive charm, the band were given carte blanche to do pretty much anything they wanted, resulting in their eponymous debut, a strange and eclectic brew perhaps too eccentric even for the early 1970’s. Not that I would describe the LP as inaccessible – far from it. Because there’s enough roots rock and Americana going on to please even the roughest and toughest of truck drivers.
Recorded in late 1970 at The Record Plant in Hollywood, and released in January 1971, the album opens with keyboardist Bill Payne’s earthy, almost Stones-sounding “Snakes On Everything”, as if the band were pre-dating Exile On Main Street by at least a year. Likewise “Strawberry Flats”, where Lowell George’s vocals resemble an American Mick Jagger. All that’s missing are some of Keith Richards’ classic junky riffs.
”Truck Stop Girl” is a tender ballad about a trucker in love, and speaking of truckers, I just can’t get over Little Feat’s original version of “Willin’”, and how different it is to the one I’m familiar with and have been in love with for all these years. Because the rendition I’m listening to here could have easily been recorded by the Hillbilly Brothers for all I know (no wonder Frank Zappa kicked Lowell out of The Mothers). Fortunately the band redeems itself on a rather convincing cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-four Blues/How Many More Years” (with Ry Cooder on slide), and in the process prove that they could really play the blues if and when they wanted to (which wasn’t very often). Lowell’s “Crack In the Door” isn’t great, though it does hint at some of the brilliance that was to come. “I’ve Been the One” is another Lowell original, and while not without its moments, it ultimately fails to impress. The song is more Wright brothers than Tiger Moth in my opinion. Lowell would manage to write far superior tunes over the next few years.
The impressive “Takin’ My Time” is a delicate ode in the vein of Jackson Browne, where as “Hamburger Midnight” sounds like another album track from Main Street – that is if each member of The Rolling Stones had of been born and bred in America. Other songs such as “Brides of Jesus” highlight Lowell’s talent for complex lyricism and storytelling, before things close with the comedic and almost cartoonish sea shanty of “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie”.
There’s a raw, unrefined quality to these songs, as if Little Feat were trying on too many different shoes (no pun intended) before they eventually found the ones which fitted best. The critics adored them, naturally; however such glowing endorsements failed to translate into album sales (a mere 11,000 copies were sold in the U.S.). No matter. Warner Brothers believed in them, and Little Feat believed in itself, which was the most important thing after all. From this point on the group would continue to evolve and mature, to become one of the best live bands in the history of late 20th Century popular music (just listen to Waiting For Columbus if you don’t believe me). And while their talent may not have translated into sales, this is an LP that deserves to be heard, not only from an historical perspective, but on a musical level as well.