Forty years ago, Little Feat‘s classic, and best, album, Dixie Chicken, was released. I first listened to the album about 6 years ago. At the time I was getting into Little Feat, and as is typical with me, was becoming a little obsessive. (The year prior I could not stop listening to The Band.) I had known about the band for many years, having listened to bits of my dad’s copies of Waiting For Columbus and Let It Roll, yet it was randomly hearing “Cold, Cold, Cold/Tripe Face Boogie” on Q104 (the NYC classic rock station) that piqued my interest. So after buying Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and doing a bit of research, I eventually bought myself a copy of Dixie Chicken. I knew one track from the album, “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” but only the live version from Columbus, so I wasn’t totally sure what I was in for.
After the first listen through I knew that this was a special album. There was not one bad track on the album, and about half of the songs were absolute gems.
The album opens with the title track, “Dixie Chicken,” which is probably the group’s most well known song after “Willin’.” A light, yet funky, song, it has all of the elements that Little Feat was known for during the Lowell George era of the band: great slide guitar work, syncopated beats, and well crafted lyrics lined with wit. The song also musically sets the tone, not only for the album, but also for the rest of the first era of Little Feat (after Lowell George’s death in 1980, the band went on hiatus before returning in 1988). New Orleans-style funk was to be the backbone of the band’s next seven years.
The second track, “Two Trains,” is pure funk. I’m not talking about your stereotypical Parliament-esque funk, I’m talking about the laid-back, syncopated feel, that still smacks the two and four, laid down by the late Richie Hayward, Sam Clayton, and Kenny Gradney. Then there’s the guitar work from both Paul Barrere and George. And of course Bill Payne‘s piano adds another layer to the song that is so well constructed that all of the parts seamlessly meld together. Though the song is not one of the band’s most well-known songs, it might be my favorite on the album. (It’s also ten times better than the version on George’s solo album, I’ll Eat It Here.)
I take what I just said back. “Roll Um Easy,” the third track on the album, might be my favorite. This track is all Lowell George, and it’s gorgeous. There’s nothing fancy about the song, but that’s what makes it fantastic. George’s wordwork is on full display straight fromt he get-go, opening with the lines, “I am just a vagabond, a drifter on the run. And eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue. And I have dined in palaces, drunk wines with kings and queens. But darlin’, oh darlin’ your the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Now, I wasn’t an English major, and never have been a lyric person in general, but I would call that some great poetry. It’s simply a beautiful, emotional, yet witty song that I can’t imagine not loving it. Easily one of the highest points of the album, at least in my mind.
A cover of Allen Toussaint‘s song “On Your Way Down” follows, and only hardens the fact that the band is totally entrenched in the New Orleans mentality. The band does a great job keeping the essence and feel of the original while still making it their own version. Though Paul Barrere’s guitar work is all over this song, it is Bill Payne’s keyboard and piano work that really holds the whole thing together. He never solos, nor really ever comes to the forefront, but all of the licks he plays in the background add so much color to the song that it would sound bare without him.
The next tune, “Kiss It Off,” brings a different feel to the record. With a mix of tablas and synthesizers to start, the song would seem to not fit in with the New Orleans feel of the album. However, the song was written by George, and definitely has the melodic tendencies of the rest of the album, making it, oddly enough, fit with the rest of the tracks.
“Fool Yourself” (penned by Fred Tackett, who is now a member of the band) opens the second side of the album, and is another unassuming gem on the record. The song has nothing too complicated within it (unless you count the layers of musical parts) nor is it loud or boisterous, but it is the fact that it has a very humble, unassuming feel that makes it so wonderful. Like “Roll ‘Um Easy,” this song is driven by George’s voice, which is filled with so much calm, yet so emotional, that I always find it hard not to listen attentively.
Penned and sung by Payne and Barrere, “Walkin’ All Night” is filled with energy and groove, and brings the New Orleans feel back to the listener. Yet, while the music is solid, I’ve always found it hard to listen to Payne or Barrere sing lead. Neither of their voices compare to George’s, both in range and in style, making it hard for me to absolutely love any Little Feat song that doesn’t have George on lead vocals. Still, this song about a prostitute is fun, and fits right in with album.
Next up is one of Little Feat’s more well-known songs, “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” Like the title track, this tune is filled with fantastic music and incredibly witty lyrics, and grooves harder than most of the album. This is likely do to the fact that Richie Hayward’s drumming emulates the New Orleans groove, particularly in the beginning of the song, and is filled with lots of syncopation, which is aided by the auxiliary percussion work of Sam Clayton. You also have some fantastic slide guitar work from both Barrere and George that shows what kind of musical force the band was when they were at their best. Yet, it is the vocal work in the chorus that steals the show. Though George is singing lead, it is the background vocals of Hayward, Bonnie Raitt, and Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney and Bonnie) that take things over the top. The vocalists add some extra fun near the end of the song, where they all are singing and riffing on the lyric “I hear you moan,” as the track fades out. (While this track is definitely a classic, the best version of the song is the previously mentioned live version from Waiting For Columbus, which takes the entire song up a notch.)
“Juliette” follows and opens with George on flute (a rarity), before punching into a solid groove. Overall, the song is great and the music is more than solid, yet it is the production of the song that really shines in my eyes. If you listen closely you can hear all of the layers (particularly vocals) that are embedded in the tune, and hopefully you will find yourself appreciating how wonderfully mixed this song is, which only adds to the fact that is so well written.
The album closes with an instrumental co-written by George and Payne entitled “Lafayette Railroad.” There is not much to say for this slow moving track, except that it really showcases why Lowell George was widely known as a great slide guitar player. An interesting, yet appropriate way to end the album.
Though you won’t find Dixie Chicken on a lot of “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists, it is hard to deny that this is a very good album, and easily the best of Little Feat’s career, which continues today. Yet, for me it is not just the fact that there are so many great songs on the album, but it is also the mood and feel of the record. While so many of my favorite albums get me in emotional or energetic states, this album puts me at eases, and I can simply just enjoy what I am listening to. Yet, as you listen to the record more and more, you pick up the nuances that make it so special and fantastic, making each listen more enjoyable than the one before.
So “be my Dixie Chicken, [and] I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb, and we can walk together down in Dixieland.”