In 1976, American band Little Feat made a memorable tour of New Zealand. Nick Bollinger talks to people who were there and examines the reasons behind the group's cult appeal.
Earlier this year I got a text from an old friend with a long memory. It read: “Happy birthday. It must be 40 years today since Little Feat played in Wellington.”
He was right. Little Feat had played in Wellington on July 4th 1976, the day I turned eighteen.
Of course there was more significance to Little Feat’s arrival in New Zealand at that moment than the fact that they were my favourite band and it happened to be my birthday. As their sold-out concerts in three New Zealand cities showed, there were a few thousand others as keen as I was to see this band, with their remarkable frontman Lowell George.
Lowell George had formed Little Feat in Los Angeles in 1969. The singer, guitarist and songwriter had recently left Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. Little Feat made two albums for Warner Bros. as a quartet, both of which included versions of the immortal song ‘Willin’. The ode to long distance truckers, cannabis smugglers and illegal immigration was the earliest evidence of George’s genius as a songwriter, and was quickly covered by the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt, among others. Still sales of the first two Little Feat albums were small.
A line-up reshuffle saw them joined by conga player Sam Clayton and a second guitarist, Paul Barrere, turning Little Feat into a sextet. This was the group that would come to New Zealand.
One thing that was unusual in those pre-internet days, was that New Zealand crowds were turning out to see a band that had really had very little exposure through the usual channels. Little Feat had no hit singles, no commercial airplay, and hadn’t been on television. Their music appeared to have spread by osmosis.
One local fan who may have aided this spontaneous process was Malcolm McSporran. “I used to crusade. Everywhere I went I would carry a bag of records with me and I would browbeat, force people, evangelise – and Little Feat were one of the bands I would evangelise about. The word of mouth would crackle through the undergrowth and the subculture. Freaks up on the Coromandel peninsula and down on the West Coast of the South Island, and I guess they were all in touch with each other. It was kind of a dissemination of class acts.”
Local musicians also helped spread the word. Midge Marsden remembers discovering the group in the early ‘70s through their first album, though it was not even released here. He began performing Little Feat songs with his group The Country Flyers, and recalls other local groups such as Mammal and Rockinghorse doing the same. When guitarist Martin Hope left the Wellington-based Flyers to join The Human Instinct in Auckland, he brought Little Feat songs with him into the Instinct’s repertoire.
If Little Feat’s stellar musicianship was one reason for their appeal, there was also an anti-establishment ethos that seemed to be encoded in their songs. In ‘Willin’ Lowell George sang of the “weed whites and wine” that kept the long distance trucker – or touring musician – going until the next town. And there was ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ with its ‘cocaine trees’ and rock’n’roll doctor’s with their mysterious prescriptions. They caught the mood of the counterculture.[
By the time Little Feat arrived in New Zealand, their local audience had reached critical mass. In Wellington, the demand for tickets was so great that a second show was hastily added. The two shows played back to back, the first starting at 6.00pm, the second at 8.00pm. Many punters went to both.
But those 1976 shows Little Feat played in New Zealand almost marked the end of an era. That same year the Sex Pistols would release ‘Anarchy In the UK’, heralding the arrival of punk, which would change the face of rock’n’roll. And while Little Feat’s 1978 live set Waiting For Columbus would become their biggest-selling album, neither the group nor their charismatic leader Lowell George would last out the decade.
Artist: Little Feat
Songs: Rock’n’Roll Doctor, Dixie Chicken, Sailin’ Shoes, Roll Um Easy, Two Trains, A Apolitical Blues, All That You Dream, Oh Atlanta, Mercenary Territory
Albums: Waiting For Columbus, Dixie Chicken, Sailin’ Shoes