- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2002

One of the wonderful things about seeing live music is that fans never know when they're going to see history in the making. Such a moment happened 25 years ago, when the eclectic blues-rock outfit Little Feat recorded three shows at Lisner Auditorium in the District that wound up as a significant chunk of its landmark live record "Waiting for Columbus."
The L.A. group is coming back to Lisner for a benefit show tonight, with proceeds going toward the Native American Rights Fund and the Simpatico Foundation. Though the original shows took place here in August 1977, tonight's anniversary show falls, appropriately enough, on Columbus Day.
"Waiting for Columbus," with its goofy cover of a female tomato lounging on a hammock, is considered one of the best live rock albums of all time, a development the band certainly didn't anticipate. At the time, lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Lowell George saw it as a canny way to fulfill the band's contractual obligations to Warner Bros. without cutting a fresh record.
"We were not only surprised by the success of it, but by the critical acclaim," guitarist Paul Barrere says over the phone from a tour stop in Brighton, Mass. "I hadn't listened to it in a long, long time, and when we got together to do the reissue and I listened to it, I said 'Wow, there's some great stuff here.'"
The band decided to record "Columbus" at venues where its fan base was strongest, which meant four dates at the Rainbow Theatre in London and three dates at Lisner in Washington. (One track was recorded at a sound check, and an additional show in Manchester, England, was recorded, but none of those songs made the final cut.)
The band had a rotating set list of about 25 or so songs, but improvisation was a large part of the its live show.
"That was a given from day one that I ever joined the band," Mr. Barrere says. "We never played anything just like the record. We'd add or subtract parts here. We had entrance licks and exit licks, so everyone else would know when to come back in."
One of the better-improvised moments on the album comes during "Mercenary Territory," when saxophonist Lenny Pickett (of the band Tower of Power) plays a solo that keeps crawling higher and higher above the scale. The horn section of Tower of Power joined Little Feat for all of the live dates on the record.
As Mr. Barrere notes in the reissued album's liner notes, it's "one of the most classic live moments captured ever. The note that Lenny hits, we set off every alarm in London."
Mr. Pickett will be performing at the show tonight with the horn section of local band the All Mighty Senators.
Another spontaneous track is the opening song "Join the Band," which begins as a faint backstage a cappella melody that eventually grows in volume as all of the band joins in singing.
"We did that a lot; it was kind of like a vocal warmup," Mr. Barrere says. "We took it from an album of Alan Lomax field recordingswe used the tune because it has a big choral aspect."
The version that appears on the live album was recorded in the hallways at Lisner, with the band members singing the song as they went from their dressing rooms to the main stage.
Fans at the time couldn't have known it, but the band itself was slowly breaking up during that period and the Lisner shows would be the last Mr. George would play with Little Feat before he died of a heart attack in 1979.
"Musically, we always seemed to get along," Mr. Barrere says. "Onstage we had that great give-and-take, and we all seemed to have the same focus. All the cylinders were clicking."
With Mr. George's death, Little Feat disbanded until a chance reunion with one another made them reconsider.
"It was totally the music that did it," Mr. Barrere says. "We all got together for the opening of a new recording studio in L.A. that would be dedicated to the memory of Lowell George. We hadn't seen each other in five years, and we jammed for four hours or so. Some of the songs came back like that."
The "spark" the band members felt together persuaded them to re-form Little Feat, and the new incarnation (with Fred Tackett on guitar and vocals and Shaun Murphy on vocals and percussion) has released more than half a dozen records since 1988.
In addition, the band has formed its own label Hot Tomato Records and released a two-disc set of live recordings that cover the band's entire existence. An expanded version of "Waiting for Columbus," with outtakes and expanded live material, was released in the spring.
The benefit show came about initially to support the Simpatico Foundation, which is aiding the recovery of drummer Richie Hayward's son, Severn Hayward, who was critically injured in a car crash last year. Special guests tonight include Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Levon Helm and Bela Fleck as well as the horn section of the All Mighty Senators.
The band decided to return to Lisner, as the Washington area has always had some of its strongest fans.
"We actually lived in Hunt Valley, Md., for three months while we were recording one of our early albums," Mr. Barrere says. "We started playing all around the area, which was something that we didn't do back in L.A. Before we knew it, we had a fan base there that was unparalleled to anywhere else in the U.S."
The question remains Why is the album titled "Waiting for Columbus" if it wasn't actually recorded on Columbus Day?
"Neon Park's cover painting actually superseded the record," Mr. Barrere explains. "It shows this tomato hanging in a hammock and, as Neon told us, when Columbus first came to America, he discovered the hammock and the tomato. Neon always used to work little unknown facts like that into his paintings."
WHAT: Little Feat with special guests
WHERE:
George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW
WHEN:
7:30 p.m. tonight
TICKETS:
$40
PHONE:
703/218-6500 for tickets, 202/994-6800 for information


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