When the discussion turns to bands that have done the most to influence contemporary American music and some of its signature genres, one of the groups that almost always comes up is Little Feat, which has been on the scene in one configuration or another for almost 40 years now.
Jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, folk, country, New Orleans funk and unabashed rock and roll—nothing was off limits for the band, which, in its latest incarnation, will ring in a new year at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, January 3.
“We have always had the idea there is only one rule, and that is there are no rules,” guitarist Paul Barrere said in a recent interview. “We can try anything musically at any time, and if it works, well, we will ride that train.”
When guitarist Lowell George and keyboardist Bill Payne joined forces in 1969 in Los Angeles, few imagined the musical roller coaster that lay ahead over the next 40 years. During their first decade together, Little Feat, which was literally named for Mr. George’s small feet, took listeners on a journey of musical exploration.
And the trip continues to this day.
Little Feat, with a spelling pun that paid homage to the Beatles, helped define the culture of the 1970s by fusing different styles of music into groovy, jam-based and funk-blues guitar-driven rock anthems that blended perfectly with the experimental counterculture of the time.
Mr. George’s soulful lyrics, combined with his incredible skill on the slide guitar and Mr. Payne’s signature honky-tonk style on keyboard, influenced some of the most prominent rock musicians of the era, including members of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
There have been several reincarnations of Little Feat since Mr. George died of a heart attack in 1979, a tragedy that sapped the band of its heart and soul, leading to a nearly 10-year hiatus.
But since 1988 the remaining core members of the band—Mr. Payne, Mr. Barrere, Richie Heyward, Ken Gradney and Sam Clayton—have performed together as Little Feat, and last summer released their latest album, titled “Join the Band,” a sort of participatory tribute to the history of one of America’s greatest jam bands.
The album is a collaboration featuring more than a dozen renowned musicians from all different backgrounds who happily acknowledge that they have been influenced over the years by the music of Little Feat.
“It’s sort of a tip of the hat to people who were influenced by the band, and who also influenced us,” said Shaun Murphy, a booming vocalist who took over as Little Feat’s lead singer in 1993. “Every time you record one of the classics, it’s got some new influence and it’s always such a fresh approach.”
Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seeger, Bela Fleck, Chris Robinson, Vince Gill, Dave Matthews, Brooks and Dunn and Emmylou Harris are just a few of the artists who agreed to collaborate on the project. Slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, who is widely considered a master of that style, channels the spirit of Mr. Lowell quite admirably.
“Other than Clapton, I don’t think there’s a slide player on the planet that matches what Sonny does,” Ms. Murphy said. “And nobody plays banjo like Bela. These people are so phenomenal, it’s hard to even gauge the feelings that you have.”
Mr. Buffett is an old friend of Mr. Payne and invited the members of Little Feat to his studio in Key West, Florida, to begin work on the project, which—at least in concept—had been 10 years in the making. Mr. Barrere, another slide specialist, said it was Mr. Buffett who helped provide funding and critical brainstorming to get the project off the ground.
“Jimmy was instrumental in getting this done,” Mr. Barrere said, noting that he “stepped up with the funding and a lot of great ideas. For the most part, the wonderful artists that joined in were there for their own talents and certainly came through with flying colors.”
Little Feat’s earlier music from the ’70s, described in Rolling Stone magazine as “the era’s popular Southern-fried boogie,” is epitomized by the band’s most successful, and timeless, 1972 release, “Dixie Chicken,” which brought commercial success to go with the band’s already established critical acclaim. The single of the same name has received almost continual radio play on major rock stations for 36 years now.
The lull that followed Mr. George’s death ended when Mr. Payne and Mr. Barrere reunited with their former bandmates. Mr. Heyward was back on drums, Mr. Gradney on bass and Mr. Clayton on percussion, as well as Fred Tackett on guitar, mandolin and trumpet. After a decade apart, Little Feat was back together with former Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller taking over on lead vocals.
And while the band never returned to its perch atop the rock-and-roll world, it toured constantly and released a string of albums in the ’80s and ’90s, including its most successful album since Mr. George’s death, “Let It Roll,” which sold more than a million copies.
After five years with the band, Mr. Fuller left to be with his family and Little Feat changed lead vocalists for the second time with the arrival in 1993 of Ms. Murphy, whose vocal tone and delivery have drawn comparisons to Bonnie Raitt. The band has remained intact, with Ms. Murphy on vocals, for 15 years and Mr. Barrere credits the evolution of the group for keeping their sound fresh.
“I think when we put the band back together, Craig was a great addition,” he said. “Then when we added Shaun, she brought back a more R&B aspect to the mix. But having said all that, the fact that the core of the band has been together since 1972, there is a constant that you don’t see with many bands.”
Mr. Barrere said he and his bandmates would continue to tour in the future and find even more ways for the music of Little Feat to evolve, something he said would surely please Mr. George if he were alive today.
“We are musicians first and foremost and therefore just enjoy playing and creating,” the guitarist said. “We are still eclectic and innovative in all we do musically.”
Little Feat will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center at 76 Main Street on Saturday, January 3, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45, $60 or $75, available by calling the Arts Center box office at 288-1500, stopping at the PAC during box office hours, or by visiting www.whbpac.org.