UCR INTERVIEW: Bill Payne of Little Feat

Photo Credit: Polly Payne

Little Feat will be at Sandy Amphitheater on August 1st. They will be celebrating the 45th Anniversary of their iconic live album Waiting for Columbus. Utah Concert Review had the opportunity to chat with founding member Bill Payne.

Making a truly great live rock and roll album is an enormous challenge, so difficult that they are a rarity.  Waiting for Columbus is a consensus member of that very exclusive club. 

After two years of Covid-enforced silence, Little Feat has returned to the stage with a vengeance.  Hard on the heels of their November ‘21 “By Request” tour, they will spend 2022 celebrating the 45th anniversary of the legendary Waiting for Columbus, replicating the album at every stop.

Jerry Garcia once said that making a studio album was like building a ship in a bottle; with skill and oceans of patience, you could make something beautiful.  But playing live and recording it was like being on a ship in a raging storm. Feat’s trademark blend of California rock, funk, folk, jazz, country, rockabilly, and New Orleans swamp boogie rested on a base of improvisational skill and jazz-based chops that made their live shows special, and on Columbus those abilities are on triumphant display. 

Hearing Columbus again is something every Feat Fan looks forward to.  It’s time to lace up your dancing shoes. 

Little Feat 2021-22 features Bill Payne (keyboards, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass), Sam Clayton (percussion and vocals), Fred Tackett (guitars and vocals), Scott Sharrard (guitars and vocals), and Tony Leone (drums).

Interviewed by Kevin Rolfe

Utah Concert Review: It’s a real honor to get to talk to you. I’m excited to have you guys here in Utah. How’s the tour going so far? 

Bill Payne: You know, it’s going spectacularly well, and it’s not hyperbole. I mean, the band is just playing beautifully. I keep thinking, how can this band keep getting better? And yet it does. I’m having so much fun out here. I think that will definitely come across when we play in Utah. I’m looking forward to getting there and then we’ll be heading up to Montana where I live shortly thereafter.  

UCR: Oh, that will be nice. I’m sure some people are coming to the show that you know. 

Bill Payne: Oh yeah. Bunch. So it’ll be fun. 

UCR: That’s awesome.  I found this so fascinating. You’re celebrating your album Waiting for Columbus. It’s not often that a live album gets as much love as this album does. What do you think it is about this live album? There’s something about this album that people love to the point where you guys are celebrating it.

Bill Payne: Well, when we made it was called one of the iconic live albums of all time. Up there with The Who Live from Leeds and a couple of others from other people.

So the mantel that it was on as a live album was you couldn’t get any better than that. I didn’t say it was the best live albums ever. Although the first time I heard it the hair stood up on my arms. I mean, it really translated. There’s the songs, Lowell (original lead vocalist) is on there.  It was a really gutsy thing for us to do.  We didn’t think about it. People for years have been going “Play Waiting for Columbus.” And I don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot of bands that are playing it. Phish did it for one of their Halloween concerts, for example.

UCR: That’s so cool. 

Bill Payne: It was very cool. I called Mike Gordon to thank him profusely for having done that. But when our managers, Brian Penix in particular at Vector, mentioned the idea to us, I thought, I think this is exactly what we oughta do. Just put it out there.

Whenever you’re in a band, you’re in competition with yourself. Especially if you have different iterations of a group. I thought that’s the best way for people to make a judgment on what and who Little Feat is.  To put it out there. And that’s what we’ve done. And people are like, they’re enthusiastic to hear us. But there’s also this, like, “I hope you’re as good as we think they are” that kind of thing. Then we start playing. They go, they are, and they just have a ball.  I have been having so much fun watching people enjoy this thing, as we do.

So there’s this momentum to the band right now. And it’s being carried forward by a really iconic, truly iconic, and wonderful album. What we do with our encores is we’ll throw in stuff that was not on the album.  Or maybe a couple things that were, that, uh, were on the elongated album.  So we’re taking our stuff off the original album. 

The true answer as to why that album really resonates is the songs themselves. Certainly the treatment of the songs and how we arranged them.  Lenny Pickett playing on it from the original Tower Power. He’s been with Saturday night Live forever. But yeah, it’s about songs. We’re not replicating those songs. We’re putting them pretty much in the order they were. We fiddled with a couple things quite honestly, to make it rock a little more towards the end of the set. I think we shifted one tune.  But everything else it’s in the order that was on Waiting for Columbus. The arrangements are, we kinda leave that to our own devices. How do we wanna play something?

So it’s Little Feat, which is always unpredictable in that sense. We have a horn section, which is the Midnight Ramble Horns and they sound terrific. Charlie Martinez is our engineer out front mixing the stuff. He’s worked with Steely Dan with Donald Fagan. We got a collection of east coast guys with us. Scott Sharrard on guitar and vocals, Tony Leone on drums/ vocals. I didn’t even know the guy could sing when we got together. I guess it was late 2021 to play some concerts of requests right before we did Waiting for Columbus. 

A band is like, it’s a weakest link sort of thing. Is there a weak link in this band? There’s not right now. I hope there won’t be. Everyone is just focused at this juncture. And what happens when you know you’ve got the goods, it’s like anything else, you can walk out there with confidence and say, you know what? Just for before we were play a note I’m like looking audience like, “Get ready for a fun ride.” Because that’s what we’re gonna do. And it’s just boom, we’re off and running. At the end of the show, the band walks off, we’re just energized by it.  Friends that have been at the show called me and go, “I knew it would be good, but I had no idea!”. I go, ‘Well, I told you’. But you gotta hear it for yourself. 

UCR: What a good feeling that must be. I mean, better than the alternative I’m sure. 

Bill Payne: Oh yeah. We’ve all been there, man.  At any walk of life you go. I want to hit a home run. You like strike out 10 times. The reason little feed is who and what we are, which is what I mentioned earlier, which is what people try and define, this band has always been about, there’s a quality of music that comes through, especially live with this group. I think this’s what people have looked for over the years. Sometimes they found it, sometimes it wasn’t and for extenuating circumstances.  But there have been memorable concerts throughout a 50 plus year extravaganza with this band.

The fact that it’s hitting on cylinders that, we do have new blood in the group, which is very helpful for us. 

Photo Credit: Hank Randall

There’s one guy that’s seen the show a lot. He’s a good friend. He says, look, Tony Leone. He’s not Ricky Hayward. But Richie Hayward isn’t Tony Leone either. Well said, cuz that’s exactly right. Richie Hayward is, is a one of a kind. I mean he’s one the best drummers on the planet. I wrote about a 10,000 word essay on him, cuz I’m a writer too. And Tony Leone is just one of those guys that just popped in. And this trajectory that he’s on is, is just flat out amazing.

We recorded some stuff starting with “Long Distance Love”.  And Tony came in, played it. I was listening to it in Montana while he and Charlie were in New York working on the track. I said, okay, you got Ricky Hayward’s part now start adding your own. And he did. And I was like, oh my gosh, here we go. And it was the subtlety of Richie’s playing was what I was looking to see if Tony could capture.

And he did. 

Bonnie Rate heard the track later and she says. “I’m lifting his track, crying, listen to how good it is”. Obviously, she loves Little Feat. And we love her. That was a pretty good cosign from Bonnie. 

UCR: I love that. I love hearing all of that. Because so often there can be strife or difficulty in bands and that can affect the music. And it just sounds like the music is going so well. 

Bill Payne: We worked very hard to get to that place.  With any challenging situation and it should be challenging. It’s not easy. I mean, I talk to musicians or musicians talk to me. They go, “I was trying to, I was playing that song and, uh”, I said ‘it was more difficult than you thought?’ and they go, “yeah!”, I go well, we weren’t trying to make it difficult. It’s just the way we do things. 

UCR: For someone who doesn’t understand musical improvisation or jamming, how does that work.  For so many you play what’s on the page.  You’re out there without a net, not totally knowing what the others are going to do. Is it just a trust thing?

Bill Payne: The way it works is you have to hear each other. You have to be able to hear one another. So one of the very first things, when we went into rehearsals in November of 2021, I said the first thing we’re gonna concentrate on and to degree that we can have it happen. The most important thing is to make sure we can hear each other. It’s like trying to have a conversation and you gotta keep going, “What? What did you say?” We’re having a musical conversation up there quite literally.

I’ll speak for myself on this one. When I took piano lessons as a kid and I started off with three notes, C D E, and then the next week was C B A. So six notes. My teacher, as I was developing, she said, I’ll make sure Bill knows how to read music, but let’s not take the magic out of it for him. Which is, she knew that I came in there with some improvisational skills, even as a little kid.  I would sit down in the piano and I would explore it. 

So a lot of the guys in the band, they don’t read music. So it’s a matter of thinking in terms of music is language first and foremost. So if you’re trying to speak in the particular key, you might wanna know how many sharps or flats are in the key of how many sharps are in the key of E it’s four.

F sharp P sharp, C sharp, and D sharp. So at an early age, I was learning scales. I’ve been reading recently about all the scales that  Coltrane, used to study John Coltrane there’s your alphabet and your vocabulary. And what you do beyond that it’s just a matter of how acclimated you are to the language and how committed you are to it. Then the people you’re playing with, can they do it as well? We just kind of get up there and we will say it beforehand, or we’ll just start playing something and people go, oh yeah. And we feel something that’s like, this is more like a certain kind of groove.

Little Feat will be playing Waiting for Columbus in its entirety plus other great songs on Monday, August 1 at Sandy Amphitheater.  Click here for tickets.  We’ll see you at the show!

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