Little Feat has really been a series of different bands with only two constants, keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer Richie Hayward, and a long shadow cast by the late Lowell George. Hotcakes And Outtakes allows for some perspective on the band’s three-decade career. It also demonstrates how fragmented their history really was, and still is.
Little Feat emerged from the Frank Zappa wing of the late ’60s L.A. music scene. George had played with Zappa’s Mothers of Invention but left to front his own band. After he met Payne, Little Feat formed as a quartet, adding ex-Mother Roy Estrada on bass and Hayward on drums. Disc one begins with this unit, which produced two albums that straddled a midway point between Zappa and The Band, bizarre lyrics anchored by strong roots in blues and country.
A few years later the band reorganized, replacing Estrada with bassist Kenny Gradney and adding percussionist Sam Clayton, making the band a multiracial unit. The arrival of second guitarist Paul Barrere allowed George to focus on his incredible slide playing. Starting with the Dixie Chicken album, this ensemble created the New Orleans-inspired country funk sound that has defined them ever since. Disc one concludes with this lineup’s early high points.
Even though the second version of Little Feat produced six albums, George’s decaying health began to limit his contributions to the band around the third album. Before he died in 1977, after years of hedonistic living, the creative duties had already fallen to Payne and Barrere.
Although Barrere mostly kept to the George sound, Payne discarded the grit, preferring the clean studio sound popularly practiced by the likes of Steely Dan. For George stalwarts, the second disc shows the band’s fall from grace; only tracks from George’s solo record and the Feat album released shortly after his death provide any delectable hints beneath Payne’s polish.
The band broke up again after George’s death, but the surviving members regrouped in the late ’80s, making records for a succession of different labels with a revolving slate of members. Disc three serves as a “hits” package for this unit.
Disc four provides delights galore for the George wing. Focusing on the band’s early era, the disc introduces previously unreleased songs, alternate versions, and George demos. Some of this material (such as “Doriville”) is revelatory, but the demos are the real gems, showing how George generated his uniquely funky compositions with just a guitar and a rudimentary rhythm machine.
Fans of Little Feat (and the band members themselves) remain divided as to whether Little Feat was Lowell George’s vision or a collective. Regardless, Hotcakes And Outtakes gives all sides their due, leaving the listeners to judge for themselves.