Ask anyone who was a fan of small feat during their first tour – a decade from 1969 to 1979 where the singer and guitarist Lowell-Georgesand keyboardist Bill Paynesteered a leaky ship through toil and trouble – and they’ll tell you Small feats the music really came to life on stage. Just like the peers Grateful Deadthe Feat needed the unpredictable conduction of energy between band and audience, as well as the heat of the moment, now or never, the fury of live performance, to take flight. It is therefore not surprising that Waiting for Columbus is part of Small feats the most enduring albums, often included in lists of the greatest live albums of all time; it’s also crazy to consider how the sextet pulled things together against the odds, and almost in spite of them.
They had been through a lot already. small feat formed in 1969, when george left At Frank Zappa’s mothers of inventionpicking up the bassist Roy Estrada with him, and bound to Payne (whose prehistory included an appearance on an obscure garage rock stomper, something wild Trippin’ Out), and drummer Richie Hayward, who had previously worked with George in The Factory. They recorded two albums (1971 small feat and the following year Sailing shoes) as a quartet before the band temporarily broke up, with Estrada going to Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Reform shortly after, george and Payne replaced Estrada with the guitarist Paul Barrerebass player Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton. The “classic range” of small feat was therefore in place, recording a series of albums through the 70s, even if they always seemed to be in a state of complication or confusion; during a temporary split between 1973 and 1974, for example, the band members would end up playing with the Doobie Brothers, Robert Palmer and ike turner.
The road to Waiting for Columbus seemed particularly rocky, though. There were changes in in-band dynamics; george sought Payne and Barre contribute more, but still had to maintain his dominant position in the group. Small feats the music, which for several years had felt genre-neutral, moving from blues to country to funk and R&B, seemed to be moving towards a more fluid and improvisational jazz-rock sensibility, which george found it a bit alienating. His songwriting contributions dwindled and others took over, so that in 1977 Time loves a hero, George’s the songs almost felt like an afterthought – he just didn’t offer enough material. And while small feat had limited success – Top 40 albums, a good gig draw – they couldn’t quite take it to the next level, something that has dogged the band throughout their existence.
Group politics and cultural appropriateness aside, if Waiting for Columbus proves everything is the elasticity and playfulness with which small feat approached their material, with a fearlessness that seemed to somehow enshrine – and not uncomfortably – the freedoms of jazz and improvisation into the song’s elementary structures. They do this in two ways – live, you can hear them giving songs new shapes, improvising passages that fit together effortlessly, taking songs and rewiring them entirely. The New Orleans funk that has become so central to their music is on full display on songs like “Mercenary Territory”; “Chicken Dixie” is stretched like so much taffy, woven into a beautifully supple groove; At Mick Taylor’s guest appearance on “An apolitical blues” is instructive on both the malleability of a player taylor was, and how accommodating small feat were in a group. But the album itself is also a Frankenstein, pieced together in post-production from various shows, with some re-recorded guitars and bass, and most George’s vocal performances redone.
So there’s real value in the three full live shows that make up the rest of this super deluxe edition. From the evidence here, they picked up stellar performances from Washington’s show for the album. It’s a bit of a shame not to hear more nights from the three cities represented here, although some are buried, no doubt, for good reason – a London night would be known as ‘Black Wednesday’, played, as it was, under a cloud of nocturnal parties, acrimony and infighting. The August 2, 1977 show in London here is a gem, however, the band are in perfect control, driving the music to heights of ferocity, yet still maintaining a playful edge. Adding the tower of power horns gives the songs real weight, and the version of “Mercenary Territory” here is one of their best. Washington’s performance makes up a good chunk of the original Waiting for Columbusbut it’s great to finally hear the whole set, because at that time, the Feat were a tightly drilled machine.
The revelation of this deluxe edition, however, is the Manchester City Hall set from July 29, 1977. None of the Manchester recordings have been released before, which obviously seems like a real missed opportunity. The group had not yet been joined by the tower of power brass section – which would come later, to London – so the Manchester ensemble gives a great chance to hear the Feat in formation of six pieces. There is an electric pulse between the band members, with powerful performances of “Fat man in the tub”, “Doctor Rock & Roll”and “Oh Atlanta”even if the whole thing gets really expansive with 10 minutes “Chicken Dixie”where the band proves its improvisational cojones – there’s both a fierce sensitivity and conviction to the way they interact here, and an elasticity that can only truly come with years of shared enlightenment.
To tell the truth, each set has its moments of length; while small feat were “on” most often, they were sometimes given to the too prolix, and jazz-rock “Day at the dog races” dragged out at times – spanning 10 minutes and beyond, his vamp on a repetitive riff could meander, although there are some particularly beautiful moments on Manchester’s rendition, when things simmer a bit, and Payne lets out little whispering sighs of liquid keys on a subdued percussive palette. It’s moments like these that suggest there was more to Feat banter in such music than george clocked in at the time – allegedly, when he heard the tapes of the studio version, of Time loves a hero, george snapped, “What is it? Whore Weather report?”
george often left the stage while the rest of the band played “Day at the dog races”visible marker both of the complex and multiple musical tracks followed by the various members of the group, and of the quivering volatility of the relationships at the heart of small feat. But despite all this weirdness and unpredictability, listening again Waiting for Columbus – both in its original form and with the live sets appended to this deluxe collection – here reinforces the strength of the music, an ideal combination of lofty songwriting, musical voracity and the rare chemistry of a band, on stage, in full possession and understanding of their abilities, playing with nuance and sensuality. That they would continue to do so, even after the death of their former leader, Lowell-Georges, in June 1979, testifies to the enduring power of the music here and its permanent resonance. Few have played it so well, with such generosity of spirit and fluidity of groove, before or since.