Funk, blues, Gospel, it’s all here. And the finest version of Willin’ too.
Compared with their debut, Little Feat’s 1972 album Sailin’ Shoes proved to be a far more successful amalgam of the band’s penchant for diverse Americana. It was also the first of their records to feature Neon Park’s wonderfully surreal artwork, whose paintings would grace every Little Feat LP from here on. Under pressure from Warner Bros. the band felt they needed to focus their talents and come up with something that was both commercial as well as artistic.
Opener “Easy to Slip” was Lowell’s attempt at writing a song for the radio, and as a way of getting the band some airplay. However George was too intelligently eclectic to ever write a straight forward pop tune that would ever appeal to the masses. That’s where a high IQ can sometimes become a hindrance. Still, it’s an above average tune written by someone with an above average intelligence. The white funk-blues of “Cold, Cold, Cold” actually sounds cold, as if Lowell was recording his vocals through a refrigerator. My recommendation is to play this track on a sweltering day. The bluesy, quirky “Trouble” is quintessential Lowell, and an idiosyncratic ballad the man always seemed to excel at.
Richie Hayward and Bill Payne’s “Tripe Face Boogie” is just that, a fun boogie piece notable not so much for its compositional qualities, but for the band’s musicianship throughout. Lowell’s “Willin’” was obviously so good they decided to record it twice. Here the band lovingly refashions it into a work of wistful splendour, accompanied by tender pedal steel and elegant piano. Side one concludes with the wonderfully down to earth “A Apolitical Blues” where George goes all out to express his inner Muddy Waters.
Flip the record over and we get the gospel blues of “Sailin’ Shoes”, a song about cocaine, fishing and “having a good time”. “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” had been written some years before, and went through many changes, until Lowell felt that the song was finally complete. “Got No Shadow” (written by Bill Payne) is more like it. Funky laidback keyboards, some spacey slide guitar, a rhythm section sitting on the back beat, and of course Lowell, whose voice could bring the angels down from heaven.
“Cat Fever” is a slow blues, sung by Payne, and is a tune that might have worked far better had George been at the microphone. Payne struggles a bit on the high notes, however Lowell being the egalitarian that he was, must have believed that Payne had every right to sing his own song if he wanted to (even if he does sing out of tune now and then).
We end with the sentimentally titled “Texas Rose Cafe”, a song so varied that it must have had many a listener (and record executive) scratching their head as to what Little Feat were actually trying to do. I imagine that was something the band itself was attempting to figure out, thus confusing its audience in the process. Needless to say there are some splendid moments, like a cross between Chick Corea and country-rock.
Sailin’ Shoes was ultimately a more accomplished and sophisticated record than its predecessor. However it too would fail to sell, and soon fade into the ether as a consequence. Commercial failure aside, Lowell’s song writing skills were clearly developing, helping to take Little Feat into an entirely new and fascinating direction, not without some assistance from each band member of course, who were some of the finest musicians man ever heard. Though unfortunately talent doesn’t always equate to popularity, as Lowell George and Co. were beginning to realise. The positive to all of this was that the band were building up a loyal and devoted following, thanks mainly to their superb live performances. The masses may not have bought their records, but there was certainly no shortage of already famous musicians who did. Praised by the critics, though completely ignored by the public, the band would remain undeterred, going on to record their most premium album to date, 1973’s Dixie Chicken.