Little Feat revisits a big record: ‘Waiting for Columbus’ in concert

Still stepping out, band will perform legendary live record, start to end.

The 1970s gave us some of the greatest live albums in rock ‘n’ roll — “Live at Leeds” by the Who, “At the Fillmore East,” by the Allman Brothers, “Rock of Ages” by The Band.

If the 1970s had produced “Live at the Apollo” by James Brown, it would have been a perfect decade, but it was pretty great nonetheless.

In that pantheon of audio verite is “Waiting for Columbus,” by Little Feat, a double album recorded during three nights of Washington, D.C., performances in August 1977.

Some bands must be caught on stage to savor their swing, and no group typified this rule more than Little Feat. (See the brand new video below for a live version of “Oh, Atlanta,” recorded by the newest version of the band.)

“Waiting for Columbus” featured extended jams, head-snapping segues between tunes, the gritty, greasy sound of Lowell George on slide guitar and the soulful majesty of the Tower of Power horn section. All make for a peak musical experience.

The album, released in 1978, was a high water mark for the band, but within a year George would be dead of a heart attack and the Feat would park its shoes under the bed for the next handful of years.

This spring, after some stops and starts, the 21st century version of the band — what co-founder and pianist Bill Payne calls its third act — is performing the entirety of “Waiting for Columbus” in concert. In Atlanta that will happen on March 22 at Symphony Hall.

Payne, who turns 73 this month, is aware of the band’s long legacy, and of those who say that Little Feat isn’t Little Feat without Lowell George. But he is ready to stack this group up against any other iteration.

“I watch the expression on people’s faces when we play,” he said, in a recent interview from his home in Montana, “and there’s this hope, ‘oh my gosh, I hope these guys can hit the bar.’ And when they hear the music, it’s like jumping into a warm, inviting pool. ‘This sounds great!’ I’m as big a cynic as anybody, and if it gets past me, it can get past anybody.”

As important as George’s voice and guitar were, Payne’s New Orleans-influenced piano is a key part of the Little Feat mix. Though he’s classically trained, the echoes of Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack, Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino permeate Payne’s sound.

Of Professor Longhair, Payne said, “I got to meet him on a Saturday night at Tipitina’s. I thanked him for every lick I ever lifted from him, and played the same piano that he played that night. He died the following Tuesday.”

Payne is the only founding member still in the band, but he is joined by two musicians — bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton — who have been part of Little Feat since 1972, and guitarist Fred Tackett who has been on hand since 1988.

Replacing Paul Barrère, who died in 2019 is guitarist Scott Sharrard, a frequent guest in Payne’s other band, the Doobie Brothers, and former musical director for the late Gregg Allman.

Another newcomer is drummer Tony Leone, who had teamed up with Barrère and Tackett as part of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band. He occupies the drum throne vacated when Richie Hayward, Little Feat’s drummer for almost 40 years, died in 2010.

Local audiences will be particularly receptive to one Little Feat tune, “Oh, Atlanta.” A celebratory shuffle, the tune has been adopted by the Braves, the Falcons, and other sports teams, who blast it over public address systems to trumpet a win.

The song grew out of a “discussion,” or perhaps a friendly competition between Payne and Lowell George, around a basic question: How do you write a hit song? “Neither one of us could, by the way,” said Payne.

Credit: Polly Payne

Credit: Polly Payne

We beg to differ. Payne acknowledges that his tune, “Oh, Atlanta,” has achieved a sort of timelessness. “I’ve just always been very proud of that song, and really humbled by the fact that for so many years Atlanta has chosen that tune as a standard to promulgate their various sporting events.”

Why Atlanta? Little Feat is an L.A. band, but they always enjoyed playing Richards, the legendary club on Monroe Drive, and eating at Ma Hull’s Boarding House. (There’s a photo on the Atlanta Bands Facebook page of a 70s-era Little Feat gathered around Ma Hull.)

Bringing a live album back to life should not be an exercise in copyism, Payne said. “We’re going to put our own stamp on it. We’re not up there to replicate ‘Waiting for Columbus.’ I don’t know that we would be capable of that anyway. We’re not Steely Dan.”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Little Feat, in the Waiting for Columbus Tour, with special guest Amy Helm

8 p.m. March 22. $29.50-$274.50. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, aso.org.