Lowell George was one of contemporary rock’s greatest iconoclasts and, like most such characters, his idiosyncratic tendencies were as close to the source of his talent as the cockeyed lust for life that ultimately led to his downfall. The introduction to the DVD trades in hyperbole, the likes of which belies the hip factor Little Feat continues to elicit from their dedicate fan base, but that minor faux pas doesn’t misrepresent or derail the purpose of this documentary.
Produced by and including contributions from American writer Bud Scoppa and the same staff of music lovers (including the most astute British author Barney Hoskyns) who have devoted their observations and analyses to the similar work devoted to Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers, Feats First focuses on the entire career arc of titular leader of Little Feat. The documentary rightfully places the germination of the band within the historical context of the burgeoning Los Angeles scene that erupted in the wake of the Beatles breakthrough followed in short order by the subsequent and widespread popularity of the Byrds. Interview segments with renaissance man composer/producer/recording artist Van Dyke Parks clarify the importance of the breakthrough of George’s early band the Factory under the tutelage of Frank Zappa and his management. Yet it accurately assesses the significance of drummer Richie Hayward’s entrance into the group. Along the same lines, long-time Warner Brothers staff producer Russ Titelman posits the meeting with keyboardist Bill Payne as a crucial artistic breakthrough as both shared a predilection for composition outside the realm of conventional pop songs. Internal scuffling brought an end to the Fraternity of Man band (successor to the Factory) and the eventual formation of the four-man Little Feat during the course of which events a hand injury proved propitious in furthering George’s distinctive slide guitar style. Around which time his songwriting crystallized, all of which was for apparent naught when the first two Feats albums were commercial flops (despite the radio-friendly likes of Sailin’ Shoes lead-off track “Easy to Slip”).
Personnel shifts reconfigured Little Feat into a larger and earthier band, its six members somewhat paradoxically a more direct reflection of Lowell George’s musical roots and aspirations, except that he assumed production authority on the third Feats album in 1973, Dixie Chicken, and not coincidentally wrote the bulk of the material. Film footage of this lineup, juxtaposed with Scoppa’s and Hoskyns’ insights, make for clear-cut depiction of the band’s evolution and absorption of the influence of New Orleans as a stylistic focal point. At the very same time, however, disenchantment with the record label’s promotional machinations led Lowell into side-projects playing and producing with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Allen Toussaint, one result of which was a negative impact on his health. Such a major contradiction reflected George’s widening influence as a musician resulted in his diluted influence within Little Feats, the erratic nature of which relationship would continue for the rest of his comparatively short life. The band’s European and specifically English popularity far exceeded the breadth of domestic acceptance and it’s a further irony, implied rather than overstated as the documentary unfolds that Feats’ American fortunes changed when Feats Don’t Fail Me Now broke through; yet the collaborative base on which the recording was predicated—Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere writing along with Lowell–dissolved in fairly short order by increasing distance between the band members leading to performances and projects like The Last Record Album, that, if not truly desultory, did not sound anywhere near as cohesive as previous work. Little Feat’s recording engineer of choice at this stage, George Massenburg, sheds light on the increasingly fractious nature of the group’s efforts and does so in a dispassionate manner that only lends credibility to his perceptions.
Lowell George’s peripatetic lifestyle around this time included an eagerly awaited solo album that, for all the anticipation, disappointed as much as an obligatory band album, Down on the Farm. Given the historical attention eventually afforded Waiting for Columbus, the merely cursory reference to the live set is the sole superficiality of Feats First; even reflection on Lowell George’s passing in 1979 at the age of thirty-four, is exceptionally thorough and without undue focus on his self-destructive habits.
In fact, the sorrowful feelings expressed so eloquently by the likes of Dallas-based radio personality Redbeard and long-time supporter Parks are as forthright as their articulation of admiration for his work. On those terms alone, unauthorized though Feats First may be (as disclaimed on the back cover of its generic packaging), it’s virtually as distinctive as the subject to which its devoted.