In 1977, Little Feat recorded its landmark “Waiting for Columbus” live album in D.C.
Now, the band returns to play the album in full at DAR Constitution Hall on April 16.
“It’s thought of as one of the best live albums of all time,” founding keyboardist Bill Payne told WTOP. “It’s the 45th anniversary of ‘Waiting for Columbus,’ which was recorded in D.C. … We’re gonna play that record in its entirety. I think there’s 17 songs on the original recording. We’re going to jam, so it won’t be a replication, but we’ll do it in order.”
The album was recorded live over four shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre on Aug. 1-4, then three shows at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Aug. 8–10.
“To any and all fans out there that were there for the original incarnation of this record, definitely come back and see and hear what’s going on,” Payne said. “For those of you who have not caught this tour and are hearing good things, come hear it for yourself.”
Payne formed the band with lead vocalist Lowell George in Los Angeles in 1969.
“It came about from an aborted attempt of me going to Northern California to join a band in the Bay Area and it just didn’t work out,” Payne said. “I was listening to ‘Uncle Meat’ by Frank Zappa and I thought, ‘That’s the band I want to be with.’ I was told Frank was going to be in Europe, but there’s a guy named Lowell George I should tag up with. We hit it off.”
The live album includes the iconic classic rock tune “Dixie Chicken” (1973).
“There’s a story that I cannot tell … but it involves a friend of ours who was a hooker in Las Vegas, some handcuffs, a guy named Rick, who was our road manager, and the possible inclusion of police coming because of laughter, screaming and all sorts of stuff through an open window that I was trying to drown out with an accordion,” Payne said.
Musically speaking, the song was groundbreaking.
“There’s a pretty iconic music lick,” Payne said. “I borrowed that … from a record that we recorded … ‘How Many More Years.’ It had a dissonant line, so instead of playing a G-natural for musicians, they raised it up to a G-sharp. It gave it that tonality.”
The band followed up with another catchy tune in “Oh, Atlanta” (1974), which was inspired by an experience at an airport in Kentucky on the way to a gig in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“That started as a poem [about] people watching planes take off; I thought, ‘This is a weird activity,’ so I stored the poem,” Payne said. “A few years later, Lowell and I were arguing about who could write a hit. … I liked the idea or notion of people entertaining themselves watching planes. … If I were doing that … I’d want to be going to Atlanta to see some girl.”
What are his personal favorite songs to play on the tour?
“‘Mercenary Territory,’ which is a great Lowell George song,” Payne said. “‘Tripe Face Boogie’ is one I also like because it’s a song Richie Hayward and I wrote, Richie was our drummer back in the day, and that was the only song Richie Hayward ever wrote with Little Feat. When people hear it, they just go crazy, dancing and carrying on.”
Payne briefly left Little Feat in the late ’70s after feeling burnt out.
“I quit, I’d had enough, I was tired of the two steps forward, three steps back that we were going through,” Payne said. “I talked to Lowell about it and he was generous enough to let me conduct a conversation or two to tell him exactly what I thought about him. I said, ‘Whether you want to continue Little Feat or not is up to you … but give yourself a break.'”
George died from an overdose at the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, in 1979.
“We lost him on an iconic tour … in the D.C. area,” Payne said. “We lost a great one, but we still have his work. We honor that work every time we play and the legacy that Lowell, myself, Richie Hayward, later Paul Barrere, Kenny Gradney, Sam Clayton … the legacy is what we concentrate on. It’s a legacy of music that was meant to be open-ended.”
Payne reformed the group in 1987 and has kept the band going in the decades since.
“There’s a narrow window, some people want to live there, they think, ‘Without Lowell, it’s not Little Feat,'” Payne said. “Well, Beethoven is not still with us, but do we enjoy it? Yes. Do we like recordings of conductors, Leonard Bernstein doing Beethoven’s Ninth? Of course. … Music is something you don’t put in the closet. Give it some air, let it breathe.”
Through it all, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page once called Little Feat his favorite American band, while Elton John called Payne one of the great rock pianists.
“When you’ve got Jimmy Page giving you accolades, when you’ve got Elton John saying I’m one of his favorite keyboard players … it’s humbling first and foremost,” Payne said. “When we started the band we didn’t expect to be a household name, but we dearly hoped that we would resonate within the musical community and fans with eclectic taste.”
Could Little Feat ever make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
“It’s possible,” Payne said. “I didn’t use to care about it and I do now. … If you’re going to have a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you oughta put people in it that have actually aided and embedded rock ‘n roll. … If you look at the music Little Feat has played, it’s an amalgamation of blues, rock, jazz, R&B, folk, it’s got everything that’s American music.”