A little more than a month ago, Little Feat took the stage in the British village of Cropredy as a guest at the annual summer festival organized by the veteran British folk-rock ensemble Fairport Convention.
It was, in many ways, a cross-continental summit of like- minded musical strategists. Fairport wrote the book on bringing British folk tradition to an electric age, and Little Feat — long acknowledged by Fairport bassist Dave Pegg as a personal favorite — was the consummate Americana ensemble, a band able to merge rock 'n' roll, blues, funk, jazz, country, folk and various forms of narrative invention into one roaring, rocking beast.
It should have been — and, in many ways, was — a watershed moment for Little Feat. But it also was immensely bittersweet. The day before the Cropredy show, the band's drummer and co-founder, Richie Hayward, died after a yearlong battle with liver disease.
"Richie loved England," Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne said. "And there, at Cropredy, there were 20,000-plus people that were being real supportive of our Little Feat family. So it was a real, real good night for us. They treated us in grand fashion."
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To understand the soulful matrix that makes up Little Feat's music, you need to know a little bit about the band behind it. Payne insists it's the other way around, that you need to grasp the depth of its music before acknowledging the players involved. Either way, Little Feat, which comes to Lexington on Thursday to open the Alltech Fortnight Festival, has always been a tight unit.
Even though it formed as a quartet with Payne, Hayward, bassist Roy Estrada and songwriter/guitarist Lowell George, the Little Feat we know today was born with its career-defining 1973 album, Dixie Chicken, a funky mix of slide guitar-savvy rock, barrelhouse blues, earthy funk and some of the most deliciously Southern-fried music ever created by a band out of Los Angeles. Dixie Chicken saw the departure of Estrada but the addition of co-guitarist/vocalist Paul Barrere, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton.
And so went the steps of Little Feat, a sextet driven by almost every rootsy musical impulse it could dig into. George died of a heart attack in 1979; Little Feat splintered for nearly a decade. During that time, a scrapbook-style album titled Hoy Hoy was released. The record contained one of Payne's finest compositions, Gringo, which sounded like a cross between Gaucho-era Steely Dan and jazz fusion stalwart Weather Report. The song was underscored with a typically acerbic Little Feat view of humankind ("two or three weeks in Mexico and you think you've seen it all").
Today, Payne says a song like Gringo is reflective of the various stylistic possibilities that Little Feat has been able to offer him.
"Little Feat has always been a repository for all of these sounds that we — myself, in particular — have been influenced by over the years. I mean, you would have to be in 10 bands to play the wide vocabulary that Little Feat incorporates on any given album — and sometimes, in any given tune.
"That's one of the reasons we have maintained such an intense interest in keeping this band going. This experience is not easily matched.
"I've worked with James Taylor, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and on and on and on. And I've loved working with every one of them. It has been an absolute honor. But in terms of comparing that to what I can do in Little Feat? There's no contest. I would never have been able to play a song like Gringo with any of those artists. That's not even the style of music they would write to begin with."
Little Feat reunited in 1988 with its entire surviving lineup intact, plus two new recruits: guitarist Fred Tackett, whose affiliation with the band began with session work on Dixie Chicken, and singer Craig Fuller. The latter stayed until 1993 and was replaced by Shaun Murphy, a background singer on several previous Feat recordings. She departed last year.
That translates to a roster that retained all of the members who had signed on in 1973, save for George. At least, that was true until Hayward's health began to decline. When Hayward bowed out of the band last year for medical treatment, he was replaced by his drum tech, Gabe Ford.
"Part of the reason we have all continued to do this is just the sound of Little Feat," Payne said. "And Richie was a huge part of that.
"We're not holding on to the edge of the pool here. We're swimming in the deep end. And if you get out in front of an audience and don't have something to deliver, especially at this stage, and given our history as a band, we wouldn't have lasted the year. We would have played a gig or two and said, 'You know what? Nice idea, but it doesn't fly.' And our fans would have, for sure, weighed in. But that's not the case.
"Of course, just because a guy like Gabe can be a drum tech doesn't mean he can fill the slot of one of the best drummers on the planet. But things have worked out so well. Gabe has given us a really strong, new energy. He's given us a new commitment to performing — and also to enjoying — the music."