Review: Little Feat’s Live Classic ‘Waiting For Columbus’ Gets A Big Overhaul

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Little Feat
Waiting for Columbus:Super Deluxe Edition
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Many of the most essential live albums were recorded when the artists were young, hungry, and ready to take their careers to the next level. Think The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, Frampton Comes Alive, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Bob Marley and the Wailers Live, or The Who’s Live at Leeds. That wasn’t the case with Little Feat in 1977.

Just the opposite really.

Founder/frontman Lowell George had been progressively playing a less pivotal role. Feat’s 1975 and 1977 albums had him writing or co-writing only a few tunes, with his presence barely there for ‘77s lackluster Time Loves a Hero where he only contributed one tune. He was also at odds with the rest of the members who wanted to move towards jammy jazz-fusion, which they did on “Day at the Dog Races.” George disliked that direction so intensely that he walked off stage when they played it live.

So it came as a surprise when in 1977 he decided to document Feat’s notoriously intense live experience in both London (where they were bigger stars than in the States) and Washington D.C., another of the band’s strongest markets. With Little Feat’s fortunes at an all-time low, it’s hard to imagine they would have created anything worthwhile, let alone one of rock’s most legendary concert recordings in Waiting for Columbus.

But the 1978 double vinyl 17-track set consolidated everything Feat excelled at. Their crackling combination of funk, jazz, pop, blues, swamp rock, and New Orleans rhythms that created such studio gems as the 1973 Dixie Chicken and the following year’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now exploded on stage. Bringing in the Tower of Power horns for some songs further pushed the shows into the red. The set list ran the scope of Feat’s albums, cherry-picking the best moments and injecting them with crunching energy, often extending and nailing a pocket the studio versions frequently just hinted at.  

Unfortunately, it was not to last. Lowell George succumbed to his vices shortly afterward, passing in 1979 during a solo tour. He was just 34.

While the group carried on, disbanding and reforming several times over the next few decades, they never regained the visionary mojo George brought with his skewed songwriting, sizzling slide guitar, and husky, emotional vocals. That helped make Waiting for Columbus so exceptional since it marked his final foray with the band he formed.

Still, the music on that initial album was not exactly what audiences experienced when they saw the band live. George overdubbed vocals and guitar from the original tapes, apparently on every song. Those details are explained in the extensive liner notes from the 2002 expanded double CD package, which added ten more tracks, making an already classic album even better.

We now have the new “super deluxe” edition, released not so coincidentally in conjunction with Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus’ 45th-anniversary tour. Stretched to eight CDs with three additional (non-overdubbed) full shows from the same tour (two discs per gig), listeners can experience the band in full flight, warts and all. Two concerts from the UK and one from Washington D.C., presented exactly as they were played, represent multiple nights Feat spent in each city. They capture the good, the bad, the occasional wonky vocal and blown notes that characterize any outfit, even ones with musicians as talented as those in Little Feat.

At about $100, this is clearly geared to the super fan with deep pockets and enough interest in multiple versions (up to four) of each selection. While the performances and set lists are slightly different, there isn’t enough variation for anyone but the most dedicated Feat admirer to spring for what might simply be too much of a good thing. Less obsessive music lovers can suffice with the still-in print 2002 double disc which covers every song heard here, without duplication.

But for many who hold the George-fronted band in high regard, this is a treasure trove they likely never thought would be commercially available. It’s worth the extra cash to partake in more music from a legendary tour that, with the passing of three of its members, can’t be replicated.   

Photo by Elizabeth George / Rhino

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