A Guitar God and a Soft Rock Favorite
Here is a short meditation on the genius of Lowell George, and in particular his influential slide playing. Songs excerpted in the pod for the purpose of commentary and discussion include the following (in order of appearance):
- Allman Brothers — “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” (Live at Fillmore, 1971)
- Little Feet — “Crack in Your Door” (Little Feet, 1971)
- Bonnie Raitt — “Spit of Love” (Fundamental, 1998)
- Frank Zappa — “No Waiting for the Peanuts to Dissolve” (You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore, Volume 5, 1969)
- The Meters — “Just Kissed My Baby” (Rejuvenation, 1974)
- Little Feet — “All That You Dream” (Live in Holland, 1976)
- LIttle Feet — “All That You Dream” (The Last Record Album, 1975)
It is difficult for me to view anything by Little Feat without focusing through the lens of Lowell George. The sound of his guitar and vocal is just such a signature. And his slide playing on songs like Fat Man in the Bathtub has had such a tremendous impact on me personally. That guitar sound was not just big for me, but actually a bit of a pivot point for electric slide playing in rock music. Lowell basically took us on the next big step in popular electric slide playing. For white rock guitarists, it was Duane Allman and then everybody else. Duane was the only one who didn’t sound like he was imitating someone else.
[DON’T KEEP ME WONDERING SNIPPET]
Even monsters like Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green and Jimmy Page couldn’t do it. I think Mick Taylor was the only one who came close to establishing a real signature sound during the generation when the influence of Blues music became more mainstream in the late 60’s.
But then we fast forward into the mid 70’s and Lowell brings out that compressor pedal and changes everything.
[CRACK IN YOUR DOOR from LITTLE FEET from 1:20]
There are undoubtedly a bunch of YouTube videos that discuss how Lowell George got this sound and the role that the compressor pedal played in making that happen, but I’m not interested in going into that now. Suffice to say that the technique can be approximated and we see a TON of that with guitarists Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder, who both learned their tone directly from Lowell George. The fact that Lowell didn’t survive long enough to see that pile of money that Bonnie Raitt made playing guitar the HE taught her is really too bad.
[SPIT OF LOVE from FUNDAMENTAL from 1:45]
But Lowell George was a man of excess. He died of a drug overdose in 1979 at age 34. He was a big man, but not big enough for these appetites apparently. You can see him sweating through the Little Feet sets in Rockplast videos (THANK GOD FOR ROCKPLAST) and others on Youtube. His weight ballooned to over 300 lbs at the time of his death.
But even in that short career, he left an extraordinary legacy, mostly through Little Feet. I mean, Waiting for Columbus is like Frampton Comes Alive, or Live at Leeds or Seconds Out. That was an absolutely definitive live record, though highly produced, that had ALL the hits and found the band at its creative peak.
I didn’t have a strong feeling about Little Feat when I was learning guitar and I barely knew who Lowell George was, except that he had died young and that his band’s songs were on the radio all the time. Especially Dixie Chicken. To me it was like Lynyrd Skynyrd — dumb Southern Rock. Obviously the only dumb one in connection with that opinion about both Little Feat and Skynyrd was me. But I was young then and I’m a lot smarter now.
And then, of course, I found out Little Feet wasn’t really southern rock (at least not like Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers), but really a band from LA. More surprising was the fact that Lowell George, who co-founded and fronted Little Feet was an ex-associate of Frank Zappa.
If you go back to the era of Zappa’s band when Lowell George played guitar and sang, you can tell it’s him, but the music is still all about Frank, as it always was. This taste is from You Can’t Do That on Stage Volume 5, Disc 1, track 21 — No Waiting for the Peanuts to Dissolve. Lowell takes the first solo in this live jam from Miami in Feb 1969:
[No Waiting for the Peanuts SNIPPET YCDTOSAv5 from start]
But the more I listened to Little Feet, the more I realized that LA / avant Garde vibe is sneaking around in there. The song arrangements are a little counter-intuitive, I mean imaginative at times, more decorative than traditional blues. Once Little Feet got that New Orleans vibe, that was pretty much it. That’s the sound of that band, even though they are not one of the countless amazing musical act to come from that hallowed city.
And if we’re going to talk about Lowell George’s associations and New Orleans, then we need to highlight the Meters. The consulate New Orleans house band, The Meters (or sometimes The Funky Meters) were a more ‘lettin’ it all hang out’ version of Booker T and the MGs. Younger, more brash and showy in their musicianship, but the same basic idea. And Lowell worked with them on Robert Palmer music like “Sneaking Sally” which is way funkier than is should have been. More importantly, Lowell George’s SIGNATURE slide shows up on “Just Kissed My Baby” from the 1974 Meters record ‘Rejuvenation.’ That groove is one of the funkiest things you could ever hear anywhere.
[Snippet of JUST KISSED MY BABY from 2:30]
Lowell was smart to embrace the Meters sound in terms of commercial success. During his short career he (and Little Feet) probably outsold Frank Zappa by a wide margin. Of course, he also earned a lot more than the Meters, but that’s another podcast.
And that brings me to the Little Feet song that I just love the most and it’s been a thing for me for years. I must have heard this track under some very special circumstances to make me like it so much, but I don’t remember any of that. I just know that I love this tune. It is from the 1974 Little Feet album titled “The Last Record Album” (like The Last Picture Show). The second song on side one is “All That You Dream” and imagine how shocked I was that this long lost musical innovator, this consort of many geniuses, didn’t even write my favorite song from his band’s repertoire. Well, he didn’t.
The song is written by the second guitarist, Paul Barrere, and the keyboard player Bill Payne. The studio version also features Linda Rondstadt on vocals, which may account for a lot of the appeal. The vocal hook that the song is built around is so catchy and I will talk about that in a second.
But I may never have given this one a seance glance if it hadn’t been for that slide guitar, I have a real weakness there. As long as I live I will never hear enough of that compressed to within an inch of its life Stratocaster with the slide bar on the left pinky. The Waiting for Columbus version of the song really features more reasonable and adult contemporary sound from that guitar, but on this one bootleg, it sounds like all hell is about to break loose. Listen to the jam at the beginning, featuring some nice lead by Barrere, and then the way Lowell’s guitar comes in to introduce that amazing vocal hook. This is from Holland in 1976.
Of course, the most special thing about the song (my love of slide guitar notwithstanding), is the incredible vocal hook. It is something more akin to Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles rather than Frank Zappa or The Meters. But for me, those soft focus vocals from the 70’s will always have a special place since so much of the music I grew up with featured refrains that aspired to this catchy-ness. Here’s the studio version to calmly wrap up this episode. Thanks so much for listening and I will see you next time in the Escape Pod.