LITTLE FEAT – ” Dixie Chicken ” Released January 25th 1973 Classic Albums

Posted: January 25, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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The third album from Little Feat saw a subtle move towards a more groove-laden funk style. While Lowell George was still band leader, he was starting to share more in the way of songwriting duties, and the addition of new band members, Paul Barrere and Sam Clayton, saw Little Feat approach Dixie Chicken with a renewed sense of purpose, resulting in perhaps their definitive studio offering. For Little Feat, 1972 brought commercial defeat, then creative rebirth. Formed three years earlier by guitarist Lowell George and keyboard player Bill Payne, the Los Angeles quartet was a Mothers of Invention splinter group featuring alumni George and bassist Roy Estrada, sanctioned by Frank Zappa, who either invited George’s departure or demanded it, depending on conflicting reports. One version holds that the founding Mother objected to a new George song, “Willin’” celebrating “weed, whites and wine,” a sentiment that the famously anti-drug Zappa was anything but willing to have associated with the band.

In addition to new bassist Kenny Gradney, a Baton Rouge native, the band enlisted another Louisiana expat, percussionist Sam Clayton (brother to crack L.A. session vocalist Merry Clayton), along with second guitarist Paul Barrere, who Lowell George had known since both were students at Hollywood High. With that realignment, Little Feat established a more potent and flexible rhythm section that built upon an already powerful four-square foundation laid by Hayward: With Clayton adding conga, djembe and other percussion instruments, Gradney locking into Crescent City syncopations and Barrere answering George’s simmering slide leads with complementary riffs and spare rhythm guitar, Little Feat now cruised on a supple cushion of polyrhythms.

In the studio, Lowell George stepped up as producer, a leadership role strengthened by his emergence on Sailin’ Shoes as the band’s most prolific and distinctive writer. Drawing on his versatile command of blues, country, folk and now R&B, he refined the surrealistic imagery and eccentric (and often cheerfully shady) characters that were proving his stylistic hallmarks. For the third full-length, “Dixie Chicken”, released January 25th, 1973, he would dominate the set list even more than on the prior albums.

Boasting Little Feat classics like the title track, “Roll Um Easy” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub”, “Dixie Chicken” found the band’s reputation take a massive leap forward, while still keeping them on the very fringes of the mainstream. It also pointed to a future were George’s influence over the band would lessen, while Barrere and keyboard player Bill Payne would have a greater impact on the band’s creative direction. While so much Southern rock at the time focused on massed guitars and heavy jams, Little Feat are typically loose-limbed, but never so much that they lose focus, and while they do indulge their tendency to jam, but this never gets so out of hand that they travel so far down a certain groove that they lose sight of the song itself.

“Dixie Chicken” signaled the band’s polyrhythmic swagger with laid-back confidence, bass and conga bumping into a hip-swaying groove punctuated with Payne’s spare, jaunty piano filigree. Lowell George’s hearty drawl established its southern milieu as he set a romantic shaggy dog story against “the bright lights of Memphis and the Commodore Hotel.” The starry-eyed protagonist’s ill-fated courtship of a dubious “southern belle” cast its own spell over the song and the album, mapping a mythic Dixieland in a screwball narrative. On the chorus, Bonnie Bramlett added a lusty, soulful voice to George’s as he serenaded his “dixie chicken,” vowing to be her “Tennessee lamb,” only to find himself seduced and abandoned. The song’s closing verse offered the singer’s encounter with a knowing bartender back at the Commodore Hotel bar that transformed the final chorus into a killer punchline.

“Dixie Chicken” is an album which can prove to be an oddly relaxing experience, almost to the point where if you’re not careful, you can end up zoning out. It’s a comforting listen, one that encourages your thoughts away from whatever day to day rigours you may have in life. It also means that it’s an album that can prove a little elusive from time to time, as sometimes you get to the end of the album and realise that you’ve been so relaxed that you’ve paid precious little attention to anything that’s gone on for its duration, and it’s even weirder if you’re listening to the original vinyl, because at some point you must have turned it over. That said, it’s also an album which sounds much better on vinyl, as the majority of CD editions have sounded oddly thin and even flimsy over the years, which is something that can seriously hamper your enjoyment of Little Feat.

While some would encourage the newcomer to approach Little Feat in a purely chronological manner, however, if you’re not to fussed about hearing their musical evolution, then Dixie Chicken is for many their definitive studio statement. Live, they frequently took things to another level entirely, but if you want to hear them at their best in the studio, then this is probably the best place to start.

The title cut from Little Feat’s 1973 album heralds the sound fans can instantly recognise the cantilevered songs laced with sardonic surrealism; the slinky Nu’Awlins rhythms; the funk touches; the high sustained wail of George’s slide; the offbeat vocal blend and twin-guitar work; Payne’s unfailingly brilliant piano. Barrere went to Hollywood High with the furrier’s son who grew up rich among Tinseltown royalty, but he was also a guitar ace; his nuanced rhythms and fills and fiery solos added new dynamics and colours. Perfect, since onstage George played only slide.

His sonic setup was now fully in place. He explained, “I use an open A tuning, which is an open G moved up a whole step. Instead of moving the first, fifth, and sixth strings down, I leave them alone and move all the other strings up a whole step. There’s a lot more tension on the strings, and it gets a much cleaner and brighter sound.” Those strings were “fairly heavy-gauge” Fender F-50s, his action was set “very high,” and a Craftsman 11/16th-inch socket was his slide; he used both a pick and his fingers. From now on, those super-taut strings will slice and squall through Little Feat’s stuff, tracing George’s exceptional sonic signature “Roll Um Easy” .

“Roll Um Easy” A contemplative take lays bare the accents working in Little Feat’s regenerated sound. Tenderness often lurks in George’s lyrics, but here it’s unusually foregrounded. Even his slide doesn’t howl; it glides with muted celebration. Contrast the intimate, heartfelt feel here with the version Linda Ronstadt fronted for L.A. hitmaker Peter Asher.

“Fat Man In The Bathtub” One way George’s circle could tell how he was doing was his weight variations. So you can hear this catchy fun as a bit of self-mockery. This “mosaic” demonstrates how to take an essentially simple musical idea and deconstruct it using syncopations. It’s also one of those complex tunes that Payne helped him get his meters straight on; they worked more closely as a team than George often liked to admit. The double-tracked slide guitars are totally distinctive.

“Two Trains” followed, updating a familiar blues metaphor for sexual rivalry while showcasing bubbling cross-rhythms stitched by Barrere’s rhythm guitar, Payne’s electric piano and the triple-threat interplay of Hayward, Clayton and Gradney with Lowell George hovering above the mix with his signature slide. Where other blues and rock stylists would typically lay out melodic lines that slurred their blue notes upward, George’s slide work carved out angular leads that could dart downward, sustain shimmering single notes or sting with short, fat jabs that were uniquely his.

Sleek grooves and sly story lines weren’t George’s or the band’s only strengths. As they had on earlier ballads (notably the previous album’s definitive take on “Willin’” and the wry but tender “Trouble”), Feat knew when to pull back on firepower and dolly in for intimate close-ups. On “Roll Um Easy,” Lowell George’s voice and acoustic guitar are decorated sparingly with restrained slide accents and raw vocal harmonies by Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton.

“On Your Way Down” was a seamless fit for Feat in terms of both sound and sinister theme—the Golden Rule translated into karmic paybacks, haunted by serpentine synthesizer lines and moody percussion going bump in the night. Beyond the album’s charms, the sextet’s ensemble chemistry and expanded tool kit would elevate them onstage. Another Dixie Chicken standout, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” provided percolating Afro-Cuban rhythms as George recounted a sexual standoff for Spotcheck Billy, whose plea to “check your oil” is rebuffed by Juanita, the object of his obsessions and the subject of his refrain.

That track, like the album’s title song and “Two Trains,” would become a fixture in Little Feat’s live sets, frequently anchoring medleys linked to Sailin’ Shoes gems, and their fourth album, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, doubled down on their L.A./NOLA axis to open up a lane at rock radio and in record stores. With 1975’s The Last Record Album, however, George’s role began to recede as Bill Payne and Paul Barrere added jazz fusion elements.

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