In Barrere, George (the former member of the Factory and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention) found more than just a second guitarist -- he discovered a successor who would lead Little Feat to its rebirth (and a gold record) after George's death in 1979. Most recently, Barrere, along with keyboardist Bill Payne, tackled the gargantuan task of combing through the band's musical history to compile the definitive Little Feat collection: Hotcakes and Outtakes, due out September 19 from Warner Archives/Rhino. "That's something we'd been pushing for for a couple of years," says Barrere, who along with Payne had a hand from Rhino Records executive Gary Peterson in compiling the four-disc set. "Most of the tracks we selected came down to personal favorites and some of the more well-known stuff. Gary Peterson had picked a lot of really obscure cuts off the albums that he wanted on the three discs of studio cuts, but we had to go, you know, 'How many people really know "Down the Road"?'"
Indeed, casual music fans might have difficulty naming more than one Little Feat song ("Dixie Chicken"), even though this renowned live act has put out more than fifteen albums during the past thirty years. The group owes much of its current vitality to the eight-year hiatus it took after George's death in 1979, which begs the question: Could Little Feat have maintained its status as a road-weary jam band without this extended break? What's certain is that its absence made fans' hearts grow fonder -- Little Feat's 1988 reunion record, Let It Roll, quickly went gold, even though it clearly ranks below some of the band's other lesser-known studio albums.
However, even if the band had never lost George, it's doubtful he would have stuck around to lead Little Feat to loftier status. Legend has it that at the time of his death, George was tiring of the group's experimental tendencies and was trying to reel them all in a bit with more concise selections than the ones favored by Barrere and Layne, both of whom began to do more songwriting after 1975's The Last Record Album. With the release of his only solo record in 1979 (Thanks, I'll Eat It Here), George officially announced that Little Feat had broken up and went on the road with his solo group. During that tour, he died of a heroin overdose.
Little Feat let George's proclamation of its demise stand for ten years, then resurfaced with a gold record, creating the impression it had easily picked up where it left off. But, says Barrere, for much of the next ten years the band felt more like a vintage show pony than a real, relevant rock band during its vaunted live performances. Fortunately, that's all changed. "Now we're playing longer songs with more improvisational jams and a shorter, more unpredictable set list," Barrere updates. "The past year has just been so much fun to get up and play again because it's not like we're playing the same old songs and same old set every night."
Little Feat learned its new trick -- or rather, relearned an old one -- from old salty road dog Phil Lesh, whose influence is now evident both in the songs and the style of Little Feat's live sets. "'Tennessee Jed' in the live set stems directly from playing with Phil," confirms Barrere, noting the band's reluctance to play cover tunes in the old days.
"I was never a huge Deadhead, to say the least," he adds. "But when I got a phone call from Phil Lesh asking me to join him on the road, it was mind-blowing and I was honored." Mind-blowing might be an understatement: Lesh handed Barrere a songbook of about eighty songs to practice before hitting the road. Yet from Lesh, Barrere learned to concentrate on making every song a fresh rendition of a Grateful Dead favorite, not a by-the-numbers cover.
"That was a great experience because it reminded us of how we were years ago," continues Barrere. "After I got through touring with Phil, we just started incorporating some of that stuff within the framework of some of our songs, and now I think it's the perfect marriage for 'Dixie Chicken' to go into 'Tennessee Jed.' But we're doing more and more of that kind of thing where we throw in bits and pieces of other bands' songs. We used to do that all the time with old jazz tunes -- throw in riffs from them on our instrumental jams, and I guess it was mostly for the jazz fans out there who would recognize an obscure Thelonious Monk tune -- but now we're starting to do that with songs, whether it's a Grateful Dead song or a Hoagie Carmichael song."
So now, thirty years in, Little Feat finds itself reborn for the third time, with a renewed vigor in its live shows and an energy unbecoming dinosaurs hawking a four-disc career retrospective. But that's because, despite their age, the members of Little Feat are anything but dinosaurs, and that's what keeps Barrere going.
"Here we are, a band thirty years down the road, eighteen or nineteen records out, never had a top-ten single," Barrere summarizes. "We're not your household name, but we have a really good fanbase and we're known as being musicians. And for me, that's about as gratifying as it gets. The only thing I'm missing are the Rolls Royces, and who needs those? Give me the opportunity to play some music and pay my rent, and I'll be fine."