There is a perpetual aura that surrounds a certain trio of live albums that seems to pull together, almost gravitationally, three bands and those records: The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, The Band’s Rock of Ages, and Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus. The last of that trio- Feat’s Columbus– landed initially in 1978, following the group’s round of touring in ’77. And no band encapsulated the Brothers’ and The Band’s reverence for the seminal American forms of music- blues, jazz, folk, and country- and combined it with its own inventive musicianship, oddball sensibility, and colorful storytelling quite like Little Feat.
Waiting for Columbus was, at the time, the critical and commercial zenith of this L.A band (sounding spawned from New Orleans) that had struggled to find a foothold for nearly a decade. The Feat had plenty of fans: dee-jays loyally spinning their discs; cult followings in the UK and along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. Yet impressive sales of studio albums or hit singles remained elusive.
Also, by ’77, Little Feat was a band fraying. A growing rift between its leader- guitarist, singer, and songwriter Lowell George- and its other two creative forces- keyboardist and singer Billy Payne and guitarist and singer Paul Barrere- manifested into live performances that sometimes felt somewhat divided between George’s blues-driven funk-and-roll and the more progressive jazz leanings of Payne and Barrere. While The Allman Brothers and The Band captured their albums during the apex of their respective careers, Columbus found Feat nearing the end of its journey with George, who would go solo, then pass away in 1979.
All of which is why this new 8-CD set deluxe set, which includes the original album remastered, is so relevant and rewarding. Waiting for Columbus was a George-produced double-album compilation of several summer ’77 shows- from London and from Washington, D.C. Here are three complete shows from that run, that include some songs previously excerpted for the album, but the majority of which are previously unreleased. Convincingly, the collection shows how dynamic, loose, but tight, and committed to bringing the heat the sextet was during this stretch. They knew they were recording these shows for a live record, and they let the audiences know it, too.
The Manchester, UK show from July 29, 1977 feels like an ambitious warm-up gig, with an urgency and a groove that appear to assemble right before the ears, highlighted by Barrere’s “Old Folks Boogie.” The second disc, in particular, is a ripper, as George becomes more engaged as the songlist tips towards more of his numbers, culminating with a strong “Willin’.”
There’s a discernible bump in energy for the August 2 London performance, as the Tower of Power horns and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor guest for the occasion. As expected, a few of the night’s best efforts would make their way onto Columbus. As for the August 10 D.C. show, it’s the one that most resembles the original album in both style and substance; the band having worked-up the arrangements and the energy levels to their optimum.
Waiting for Columbus was and remains the signature, pinnacle collection for Little Feat. So much so that 45 years later the current incarnation is touring in celebration of those terrific ’77 shows. Really, though, as this box attests, and despite or because of all that had come before and all that was swirling around in their own aura in that summer of 1977, this is the raw and the pure; the context and the content of some of the best live music in the history of rock-and-roll.