Little Feat faces latest health hurdle

With the announcement last Friday that Little Feat’s Paul Barrere will be undergoing treatment for hepatitis C after completing scheduled shows through March, fans now find that the group’s rescheduled date at Kent Stage will be the only opportunity to hear its legendary musical gumbo for a long time.

“We’re gonna have to take about a year off,” explained Bill Payne, who sounded a little shell-shocked during a recent phone interview. “There’s a bit of a scramble going on right now. We’re all trying to absorb what all this means. But, it’s just another turn in the road. We’re hopeful. Really, I think Paul will be able to come back and do this, but there is a little bit of wait and see.

After performing his first solo dates last year, exhibiting his photos in galleries and having his writing published in magazines, Payne’s non-Feat interests should keep him quite busy. “In the midst of wait-and-see, I’m gonna try and get some more work. I can’t sit through this. I’ve gotta get some things rolling.”

As a founding member of Little Feat, Payne recognizes that changes in its music and personnel are ongoing factors during the band’s 43-year career.

There are the shifts that occur within Little Feat’s music, an American born and bred style that incorporates rock, blues, jazz, country and New Orleans funk. Their embrace of multiple genres, solid musicianship and songwriting chops created a template that influenced Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic.

Elaborating on his approach to songs, Payne said, “I’m not a traditionalist in any way shape or form. It says a lot about my sensibilities when it comes to songwriting and what I borrow from. So, if I’ve got a song like ‘Representing the Mambo,’ people are, ‘But, where’s the mambo in it?’ ‘It’s in the lyrics. It’s not a representation of a beat. It’s a story.’

“I’m taking artistic license to get people to come out of their box a little bit and allow me to enjoy what I do, which is not being confined by other people’s rules.”

Vindicating that approach, the group’s acclaimed 1978 album, “Waiting for Columbus,” was recently named one of the 10 Best Live Albums of All Time in a “Rolling Stone” readers’ poll.

Negatively, the group has dealt with the loss of members throughout its history – founders Lowell George (1979) and Richie Haward (2010) as well as former vocalist Shaun Murphy (2009).

The Barrere situation hits a little harder because it not only arrives so close to Haward stepping aside in his unsuccessful battle with cancer, but the band had a renewed spirit after releasing “Rooster Rag” last June. It was their first album of new material in nine years.

Payne recalls the album’s original theme. Walking around Cleveland before a show, he considered recording a blues album that highlighted percussionist / vocalist Sam Clayton.

“By the time I got back to the hotel I thought this could open the floodgates to influences that cover the Mississippi Delta, Chicago blues, Kansas City and any number things you can borrow from.

“I also thought (jazz icon) Charles Mingus would be a good influence as well. It would have been a Little Feat record centered around the conversation of blues.”

As sessions progressed, the album moved away from that original idea. Instead, it’s comprised of originals by Payne, Barerre and guitarist / vocalist Fred Tackett bookended by two blues covers by Mississippi John Hurt and Willie Dixon.

A meeting with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter reignited Payne’s composing skills.

“I told him, ‘The music is in the lyrics already.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it takes a composer to get ’em out.'” The new album features four songs co-written by Payne and Hunter. The two continued the creative partnership, with a 13th number recently completed.

Despite the uncertainty of the band’s future, Payne holds on to an optimism that’s developed following years in the studio and on the road with Little Feat, session work and tours with other artists and becoming a welcomed peer to legends such as Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Levon Helm.

“I talk about the community and fraternity of musicians, which is a whole other thing than being a pop star or anything else that is under that pop spotlight. It’s about being a player and being able to play music, and being creative whether it’s songwriting or figuring out how you’re gonna get the bass player to play the right thing or vice versa where he gets you to figure out what you’re doing.

“It’s a tug of war up there most of the time, and the rewards are significant on the level of what it feels like when it all connects, and that connection is not any different for a garage band than it is for the Rolling Stones or Little Feat.”