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Home / Brunch / One last treat for fans of the man who gave us Dixie Chicken

One last treat for fans of the man who gave us Dixie Chicken

A listen at Lowell George’s last and only solo album

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 20:28 IST
A creation of artist Neon Park, this cover of Lowell George’s last album before he died, is bold, distinctive and laden with a sense of humour
A creation of artist Neon Park, this cover of Lowell George’s last album before he died, is bold, distinctive and laden with a sense of humour( )

At first glance, on the cover of Lowell George’s only solo album, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here, you see a portrait of George, lead singer, guitarist and frontman of Little Feat, clad in what appears to be a bathrobe posing against the backdrop of a garden. Clean-shaven and beatific, he stares out at you from the 1979 album’s cover – a creation of the artist Neon Park (aka Martin Muller). But look closely at what’s happening behind George and you’ll see a surreal combination of a trio – Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan and Fidel Castro – sprawled on the grass. Dylan has one arm around Dietrich’s waist and Castro, in full olive regalia and cigar, seems to be saying something with his finger pointed at them. Look more closely and you’ll spot a picnic basket with victuals spilling out. Peer a bit more and you’ll see a copy of Howl and Other Poems, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s iconic book, open as if someone had laid it down while reading it.

I noticed the trippy cover (Park was inspired by an Édouard Manet painting) only after I found a copy in a used-record shop on Massachusetts Avenue on a recent work-related visit to Boston. Needless to say, I grabbed it (as I did a few more rarities!). Little Feat fans will know that Park has done the art work for nearly all of the band’s albums and his style – bold, colourful pop art that is laden with a sense of humour – is distinctive. Remember Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh? That was also Park. Sadly, George died barely ten days after Thanks I’ll Eat It Here came out. He was only 34. As early adherents of Little Feat, a Los Angeles band whose sound often seemed as if it came from the deep south, the fare we grew up on were the LPs that they recorded in the early 1970s – the eponymous Little Feat, of course, but also Dixie Chicken with its pronounced New Orleans vibe, the glorious Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, and the live Waiting for Columbus. That last double LP is an all-time favourite. And whenever I play it, there’s never a dull moment. Exactly like it was when I first heard it. Not a single song of the original 17 on the four sides of that album disappoints. Right from the cowbells and drums on Fat Man In The Bathtub to the upbeat and rollicking Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, which is, if you follow the lyrics, about a woman trucker: “Semi-smokin’ mama, you got to give me some/ Heard you got the biggest-biggest truck in town/ Right on through to Baltimore you’ve got to love me now.” Yes!

A Los Angeles band, Little Feat’s early sound was rooted in R&B and southern blues (Getty Images)

Many consider Dixie Chicken (1973) as the turning point for Little Feat because that marked the band’s noticeable shift toward the funky New Orleans sound that became its recognisable trait. Fat Man In the Bathtub debuted on that album, I think, but also Two Trains, besides the title track, Dixie Chicken. Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, the band’s fourth album, came out soon afterwards and it adds, courtesy a new member, Paul Barrere, a jazzy influence to Little Feat’s sound. Early in his career, George was part of Frank Zappa’s band and legend has it that the notoriously dictatorial musician sacked him. The reasons vary depending on what you read. One theory: Zappa who was seriously against drugs caught him smoking marijuana; another: the lyrics of Willin’, which George wrote had references to drugs and pills; and a third that seems quite plausible: George played the guitar for 15 minutes during a session with the amp switched off! Whatever it may be, Zappa’s autocracy rubbed off on George’s band management style as well and in the late 1970s he became unhappy with the jazzy direction that Little Feat was heading towards; he wanted to get back to the early roots sound – the R&B and southern blues influence.

That’s the genesis of Thanks I’ll Eat It Here. Although a solo album, the short 10-song record features just one song that is truly composed by George himself. Many of them are covers. He does New Orleanian Allen Toussaint’s What Do You Want the Girl to Do; Rickie Lee Jones’s Easy Money; country musician Jimmy Webb’s Himmler’s Ring; and Little Feat member Fred Tackett’s Find A River. George marshalled over 30 musicians to play on the record. So you get Bonnie Raitt on vocals; Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and horn; Chili Charles (a percussionist who’s played with the likes of Muddy Waters) on drums; Chuck Rainey (who’s played with Steely Dan) on bass; sessions drummer Jim Gordon; and many others. No, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here isn’t the sort of album where all of them play together. The production by George himself is top-notch (remember, he produced The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street?), and showcases the original Little Feat sound: southern funk; R&B; and boogie rock. It’s the last work by George before he died. For fans of Little Feat, that should mean a lot.

From HT Brunch, October 9, 2016

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