LITTLE FEAT Raw Tomatos Volume One (Hot Tomato)

Subtitled “Raw Recordings 1971-2001”, you’d have to be particularly pure of heart to afford the last 75% of this double CD as much affection and attention as the first quarter. Since reforming as a recording and gigging entity in 1988, appreciation of and interest in their activities has inevitably been overshadowed by the legacy of Lowell George, the late frontman who brought the band much of their idiosyncratic appeal, and whose increasing disinterest in his own group sapped the vitality from later albums like “Time Loves A Hero”.

So for many, myself included, it’ll be that first, Lowell-assisted half-disc that makes “Raw Tomatos Volume One” interesting. Even then, the fact that we’ve had the splendid “Hoy Hoy”, containing four sides of outtakes and rarities, to savour since 1981 means that the early recordings here possess a definite barrel-scraping flavour – truncated demos and jam excerpts rescued from random, barely catalogued tapes. Still, a frantic, loose but tight live “The Fan”, predating the released version by three years, is just what you need. A foreshortened sketch of “Trouble” nevertheless seems fully formed in its quiet complexity, and an AM-quality demo of “Fat Man In The Bathtub” is remarkable for the way Lowell’s massed guitars snake sinuously around the most metronomic of beatbox rhythms. An equally lo-fi “Sailin’ Shoes”, graced with the vocal assistance of Ms Bonnie Raitt, is even more languorous than the original. “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” is never unwelcome – in fact all Lowell is good Lowell, even the bad Lowell – Mr George apparently going into orbit during the slide solo. Bill Payne flourishes some “Genetic Method”-style ivory tinkling during an instrumental snippet from “Gringo”. I’m no great admirer of “Rocket In My Pocket” as a song, but in a 1978 live performance it demonstrates that quintessentially Georgian offbeat good-time swagger, and a fuzzy-sounding “Long Distance Love” can’t disguise his slow-rolling songcraft.

The vast remainder of the package, though, is a grind, full of undistinguished material rendered even less attractive by a propensity for interminable, distended jamming. But hand them a Lowell tune – “Strawberry Flats”, say, or “Rock And Roll Doctor” - and the interest is piqued, his elliptical melodies and tangential lyrics illustrating exactly what the modern day Feat are missing. The latter, in particular, is astonishing: somebody – Craig Fuller, perhaps – has their Lowellalike vocal impersonation pitch perfect, and the band swagger jaggedly like a cracked mosaic should.

It comes as something of a shock to discover that they’ve featured a female lead vocalist – one Shaun Murphy – for the last decade, emphasising how far they’ve shifted from their original incarnation. In fact, only the name, Bill Payne, Richie Hayward and some of the songs remain from their earliest incarnations. Certainly, it seems unlikely that Lowell would have stood for the likes of “Voodoo Jam” – this self-confessed steal from Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” is a leaden interpretation, drained of all mystery.

Paul Barrere’s rambling, ungrammatical booklet notes, wherein he attempts the artless, artful prose Lowell used to wind around the back covers of the band’s albums kind of sums up the tragedy of modern day Feat. It, like their music, is like a bad cover version of an untouchable original, and bundling their self-satisfied slop in with potent, if crude, nuggets from an earlier era only exacerbates the disappointment.

LITTLE FEAT Sailin’ Shoes (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab)

At this early stage in their career, Little Feat played a kind of seedy, low rent equivalent of Laurel Canyon/West Coast rock, the sort of music that, as Lowell George sings here at one point, is “livin’ in the cold hotel”. Their threadbare, hungry, scorched earth Eagles/Band hybrid was further distanced from the mainstream by the playful, left-field eccentricity that’s almost inevitable in a band peopled with Mothers Of Invention alumni. At their best, the Feat took regular songs and tipped them ever so slightly off their axes, their subtle rearrangements of the ostensibly familiar keeping people listening year after decade: as you get your hooks into these songs, they get their hooks into you. For all that, though, they’ve been covered by the straightlaced likes of Linda Ronstadt and Robert Palmer, so it’s not as though they’re written in some kind of impenetrable alien dialect.

The primitive drum machine that opens “Cold, Cold, Cold” is perhaps the least lopsided moment on the album, “Trouble” perhaps its most delicious, an offbeat ballad that’s over far too soon. “Willin’” is a superior remake of Lowell’s trucker anthem, which debuted on their debut, allegedly the song that got him fired by Frank Zappa. Like the aforementioned Band, they mesh almost telepathically instrumentally, this being a prime example. “A Apolitical Blues” reimagines the 12-bar form for the 70s comedown, and scorching diatribe “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” warns of the “crass” and “terrible” perils of rock and roll. During the prowling “Got No Shadow”, Lowell’s guitar hums like railroad tracks singing out a locomotive’s imminent arrival.

Every vinyl copy of “Sailin’ Shoes” I’ve encountered has been deeply, horribly scarred and mauled; perhaps it has something of a reputation as a soundtrack for wild partying. Consequently, I was delighted to finally acquire Mobile Fidelity’s long-delayed 180 grammer. It has MoFi’s typically lavish, true-to-the-original packaging, and sounds about as good as the master tapes will probably let it, that is a little foggy and distorted in places, without the Steely Dan shine of their later albums.

LITTLE FEAT Waiting For Columbus (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab) 

It was perhaps inevitable that the Feat would eventually succumb to the distinctly 1970s money-for-old-rope lure of the double live album, and unfortunate that they did so just as the vacuum created by Lowell George’s dwindling interest in his own band was being filled by increasing amounts of flavourless Weather Report-style jamming. It’s almost too tantalising to contemplate what “Waiting For Columbus” could have sounded like had it been recorded two or three years earlier. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and I’m surprised to discover on reacquaintance that it’s actually a really good album.

The lion’s share of the credit belongs to the songs: the easy-rolling charmers that populated the first four-and-a-half Little Feat albums don’t fade, no matter who’s playing them and how. The later material is dispatched with enough playful vivacity to temporarily suspend the suspicion that they’re essentially pastiches of Lowell’s self-described cracked mosaic method of song construction. (It’s not as though they spend an entire side meandering through “Day At The Dog Races”, fortunately.) All the gloss can’t smother the passion and invention crackling through “Mercenary Territory”, especially the thrilling moment when the Tower Of Power horn section torture their instruments into a near-ultrasonic squeal. “Spanish Moon” hits a slouchy New Orleans groove, but a lengthy ragtime interlude causes “Dixie Chicken”, a song that has no business being nine minutes long, to sag in the middle. This reading of “Sailin’ Shoes”, though, must surely be the laziest, sultriest version ever released.  

MoFi have done a splendid job with their second vinyl attempt on “Waiting For Columbus”. It sounds crisp, clear and clean (but in a good way), a seductive and beguiling listen. Well pressed and stoutly packaged, it feels exactly like the luxury item it aspires to be.