Photo by Margaret Corona
Eclectic. This was the word Little Feat’s keyboardist, singer, and sole remaining founding member, Billy Payne, offered both nights during Feat’s back-to-back evenings in Boston. The legendary six-piece band is in the midst of a celebratory “albums” tour- performing, in their entireties, 1972’s Sailin’ Shoes on night one, and ‘73’s Dixie Chicken on the next- during two-show stands in metropolises throughout the United States. And as Payne marveled momentarily at the diversity of styles and genres within and across the albums’ tracks, not to mention the exceptional songwriting and musicianship, the veteran musician seemed as much of a fan of the band he leads as anyone packed into the Wilbur Theater.
Payne would be justified in his admiration, as Little Feat, approaching its 55th year as a group, has experienced a healthy and exuberant resurgence over the past four years. The ensemble has been recast with two terrifically talented musicians- guitarist and singer Scott Sharrard and drummer Tony Leone- joining in place of the late Paul Barrere and Gabe Ford. Not only have Sharrard and Leone been stellar players, but spiritually, as well, the two understand firmly and reverently what it means to play this music as it should be played.
And how Little Feat’s eclectic catalog should be played is with a grip that’s tight, and hips that are loose; respecting the crafted melodic structures and robust harmonies, digging the sly, stoned humor, and, of course, giving plenty of room to boogie. As the six followed the sequence of the albums’ songs, respectively, they nailed each criteria and then some. The first half of the two-hour set was dedicated to a rendering of the proper album; the second-half devoted to a run of Feat classics. A particularly illuminating example was the inimitable Feat standard, “Dixie Chicken,” played the first night as a classic, and the following evening as a titular opener kicking off the show.
Both swung mightily, and both showcased Payne’s loping keys and Leone’s bookmatching drum work, guitarist Fred Tackett’s sweaty trumpet, Sharrard’s soul-deep vocal, bassist Kenny Gradney’s punching solo, Sam Clayton’s indefatigable percussion, and, at its climax, the rising and resilient guitars of Tackett and Sharrard. Yet, the simple difference of hearing one as a set centerpiece and the other as a starter was an emotional and comparative experience more than worth a two-show investment for the Feat faithful.
The first night welcomed several guests, as Chrissi Poland and Jackson Speller each made some beautifully jarring vocal cameos; Poland, in particular, reprising the power of Feat collaborator Linda Ronstadt on “All That You Dream,” and Speller channeling the inner and outer manic on “Teenage Nervous Breakdown.” Mike LoBue added searing harmonica to “A Apolitical Blues” and “Mellow Down Easy,” and would be the group’s only guest on the second night, for a rollicking “Got My Mojo Workin’.”
Again, Payne’s assessment echoed, as the ensemble folded their guests organically into the panorama. Too, the music folds-in the best of Feat, with Payne’s exquisite solo on the second night’s “Willin’” drawing the capacity house to a standing ovation, or on the latter-day bullet train of “Let it Roll,” which only seems to have picked up speed since its debut 35 years ago. “Oh, Atlanta” still has everyone singing along. There’s still plenty of good, clean fun on “Fat Man in the Bathtub.”
Yet, maybe best of all, in another of Payne’s between-songs remarks, is that the band is working on new material and a new album is forthcoming. No doubt, eclectic. Until then, put on your sailin’ shoes, grab some Dixie chicken, and roll right through the night.