Little Feat’s finest two albums get expanded with rarities and live tracks

Little Feat – Sailin’ Shoes (Deluxe Vinyl Edition) (Rhino / Warner Bros)

Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (Deluxe Vinyl Edition) (Rhino / Warner Bros)

Two of the band’s finest albums get remastered with outtakes and live footage too

Little Feat – Sailin’ Shoes Little Feat arrived in 1971 with a debut album that featured elements of The Band and Mothers of Invention, but never quite gelled.  That’s what makes their followup, Sailin’ Shoes, so fantastic.  The group had found their groove.  

In a contemporary review of the album, Rolling Stone called it “living folklore” and it’s a pretty good description that holds up 50 years later.  The band had done a ton of shows since their last album, and it certainly shows.  Ted Templeman, who produced the Doobie Brothers, was brought into steady the ship, and his presence certainly helped the band focus. Templeman gives the guitars a grit, but also emphasizes the earthy instrumentation.  

“Easy to Slip,” the album’s opener, was propelled by great percussion (drummer Richie Hayward really shines on this album), and excellent harmonies, it should’ve been a hit single.  “Cold Cold Cold” was down home blues, featuring pounding drums and blistering slide guitar, while “Tripe Face Boogie” was rollicking good fun, showcasing pianist Bill Payne.  

Then there was “Willin’” a song that was already included on their debut album.  But, this version excels in every way – Lowell George’s vocals are more assured, and the accompaniment is sympathetic.  It would become one of Little Feat’s most recognizable songs. Both “A Apolitical Blues” a nasty, stomper, and “Sailin’ Shoes,” a relaxed Gospel-tinged number, have tempos that speed up and slow down, depending on how the words are sung.  “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” is played at breakneck pace.  “Got No Shadow” shows off Little Feat’s ability to lay down a groove and sit in it – I love the Rhodes piano on this.  

My original vinyl copy sounded a tad flat, so this new remaster seems brighter.

The second LP, titled Hotcakes, Outtakes and Rarities, features a bare bones version of “Sailin’ Shoes,” featuring Van Dyke Parks on piano.  Better is the demo of “Easy to Slip” (actually titled “Easy to Fall”), which was one of two songs originally intended for the Doobies Brothers.  This version has more impassioned vocals from George and crazy drumming.  Also cool is an alternate version of “Willin’” – giving more room for pianist Payne to shine.  “Doriville” is a really good song that for some reason never made the album.

For many years, the only live document of Little Feat was Waiting For Columbus from 1978.  Although it’s a great album, it’s also pretty slick, and the band had hit their peak way before the recording.  This third LP showcases the band at a gig in Los Angeles in 1971.  There are times when the vocals are distorted and the instrumental mix isn’t great, but don’t let that deter you.  It shows the band in top form: it shows that these guys were truly better live.

Dixie Chicken is Little Feat at their absolute peak.  They’d shuffled members, getting a new, much more versatile bass player in Kenny Gradney, then adding Paul Barrere on rhythm guitar, and Sam Clayton on congas.  It doesn’t matter that most of these guys hailed from California.  When they began making music together, they seemed to channel New Orleans.  The album was produced by Lowell George, and for this album, he gives it what it needs (subsequent albums seemed to get more stuffy with him at the helm).  

“Dixie Chicken” led off the album, and there was so much funk and groove in just the first few notes, that you’re completely drawn in by the time George begins singing.  “Two Trains” is a fantastic groove that shuffles down the tracks – everything works here, the backup singers, the interplay between keyboards and guitars.

“Roll Um Easy” is just George with light accompaniment, and you really appreciate his supple singing and playing.  You understand how crucial Clayton was to the band’s new sound on “On Your Way Down,” as his congas drive the song. “Kiss it Off” drones on, with odd percussion and synths – it’s very un-Little Feat, but it still works.  While “Fool Yourself” is a gorgeous, mid tempo, soulful number – this is sophisticated music that sounds effortless.  

“Fat Man in a Bathtub,” another stone-cold classic, spotlights some inventive drumming from Hayward, while “Juliette” features flute, played by George! “Lafayette Road” sounds eerily like Steely Dan (foreshadowing what was to come on subsequent albums).

Of the bonus material, the demo version of “Fat Man in a Bathtub” is way cool – it’s low fi, but there’s a wacky spirit here that’s missing on the released version.  

The concert that’s included with this album is earthy – it sounds like you’re on stage with the band, and the room doesn’t seem to be very big – maybe a large club?  But, what you hear is a band on fire.  Again, the vocals are sometimes distorted, but it’s worth it just to hear how each member feeds off the other.  Listen how they ham it up as “Fat Man in the Bathtub” builds.  Then, they save the best for last – wow, just marvel as George unleashes an absolute monster slide solo on “A Apolitical Blues.”  

The fact is, Dixie Chicken marked the point where Little Feat was now composed of all fantastic players.  It may have been the tipping point where Lowell George found himself beginning to pull away because, he realized he was no longer the only guiding force in the band.  Either way, both Sailin’ Shoes and Dixie Chicken are essential rock albums that deserve this deluxe treatment.  —Tony Peters