BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Robert Putignano
Longtime Little Feat guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Paul Barrere talks about his early days before joining Feat, when he became an official member of the band, their seven-year (1980s) hiatus, and current Little Feat doings, like their new CD and touring. Barrere also keeps busy with side projects, production work, session work, and songwriting, too. Recently I caught up with Barrere right around the time that Little Feat’s latest recording, Rooster Rag, was released for Rounder Records.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: How’s it going on Paul?
Paul Barrere: Good Bob, what’s going on with you?
BW: We’re going on Paul, all too quickly.
Last time we talked I kind of threw you a curve ball, but you went with well with it when I asked you about that Chico Hamilton The Master album you did with Little Feat on Stax.
PB: Oh yeah, that was you? I don’t get asked about that recording too often, but it was one of the joys of my life because when I first started playing the guitar at around fourteen there was a drummer who played with us whose dad was Leroy Vinnegar. I’m sure you know Leroy who played bass on many albums most notably with Les McCann and Eddie Harris “Compared To What” from the Swiss Movement album. So back then he had turned us onto those earlier recordings of Chico’s with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo, etc. I got hooked and we would jam to some of Hamilton’s songs. Then fifteen or so years later I’m playing with Chico. Wow! It was a memorable experience.
BW: Chico’s still active and making good records and he’s in his early nineties.
PB: I’ve heard this about Chico, and I pray I can get to his age and still make records.
BW: Yeah, because the alternative isn’t too good.
BW: I see on the new Little Feat album you co-wrote a tune, “Just a Fever,” with Stephen Bruton. I didn’t know you had a musical relationship with Bruton?
PB: Yeah, Stephen and I go back quite a ways, I knew him from when he played with Bonnie Raitt. So we hung around a bit and finally decided it was time for us to write a couple of songs. We also shared a fondness for the grape and the grain, and we both discovered this was killing us so we decided to make a change in our lives. When we sat down to write “Just a Fever,” Bruton had all of these hard-assed rock ‘n’ roll lyrics ready, it turned out pretty funky. I like the blues, so what else can I say?
BW: I miss Bruton, and only got to see him once in Austin, Texas.
Are you still in touch with Coco Montoya.
PB: Yes. I liked working with Coco when he asked me to produce his Dirty Deal album, I suggested that we should record the tracks like the Chess records people did with a few live microphones in the room and let everyone play live. Coco thought it was a great idea and we did the record and sent it to the label, but Alligator told us it was crap!
BW: I saw Coco at a local club here around that time, and he told me he was ready to start pulling his hair out of his head with the many revisions of Dirty Deal for Alligator. If I recall the conversation, Alligator told Coco that the tunes were not bluesy enough. So it was no surprise when he changed labels from Alligator to Ruf.
PB: I know, but it’s kind of funny as I recently wrote some new songs with Anders Osborne’s new album for Alligator, I just heard it, and it’s not a blues album at all!
BW: I agree! Not at blues album at all, but nice to see you collaborating with Anders!
Have you seen Anders play live?
PB: Oh yeah. I’ve played with him a couple of times.
BW: Anders is always on fire. I also like his second guitarist Billy Iuso.
PB: Yes, most recently we all jammed in New Orleans during Jazz Fest, Bill Kreutzmann [Grateful Dead] also sat in with us on drums; it was a complete free for all!
BW: I know Iuso’s a big Dead fan.
BW: I’ve known Iuso for a few years now, and a few years ago he told me freaked out when Bob Weir dropped in on one of his shows.
PB: We had a ball, all of us. In fact Kreutzmann convinced me to drop in and record on his next album too. John Gros from Papa Grows Funk is on it. We went to this studio by the Maple Leaf and made this record with Kreutzmann; that was a lot of fun.
BW: Cool another new record for Kreutzmann.
You are keeping busy!
PB: Well, you get to be a certain age and you know you have to keep moving; otherwise someone might throw dirt over you. [Laughs]
BW: What year was it when you first joined Little Feat?
PB: 1972. At Lowell George‘s request, I actually auditioned first as a bass player in ’69, and I told Lowell that I wasn’t a very good bassist.
BW: And Little Feat had an affinity to New Orleans music, too.
PB: Absolutely, that’s the birthplace of funk. In fact, when I was growing up my father played nothing but Louis Armstrong albums, so I was always all into it.
BW: Lowell did that record with Robert Palmer?
PB: I wasn’t on that, Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley. That was just Lowell George and the Meters. On Palmer’s next album, Pressure Drop, they brought in the entire Little Feat band.
BW: Classic stuff with Palmer, the Meters and Little Feat.
Take us to 2012, how did this new album, Rooster Rag, come about?
PB: [Laughing] It started out and was supposed to be a blues record, and we covered “Mellow Down Easy” and “Candy Man Blues.” We also did a second-line version of “Slipping and Sliding,” “Brickyard Blues,” and then we also recorded “Tears Falling Down,” and a few others that didn’t get onto the album. Then we had to go out on the road and started performing these songs live and they developed; it was around this time that Billy Payne [Little Feat co-founder and keyboardist] got hooked-up with Robert Hunter [Grateful Dead lyricist].
BW: How did the Hunter/Payne relationship happen?
PB: Well, our management team used to manage the Dead.
BW: Dennis McNally.
PB: Yeah, plus John Scher and Cameron Sears at Metropolitan Talent all have long-standing affiliations with the Dead, and they put us in touch with Hunter through the Internet. I sent a track to Hunter with lyrics and he sent some lyrics back to me, and I told him I’d like to match his lyrics with mine, but he wasn’t that receptive to that idea. So no harm, no fouls with Hunter for me. But with Billy he started writing music for Hunter’s lyrics like a madman and we wound up with those four songs on the Rooster Rag.
BW: That must have been an honor for Billy.
PB: Oh yeah. One day we’ll actually meet Hunter.
BW: Do you remember in the 1970s when Hunter didn’t want anyone to know what he looked liked?
PB: That’s like R. Crumb.
BW: But later on he started making his own records and went on the road, so he had to come out from the shadows.
PB: [Laughing] I had a vision of him wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask.
BW: Too funny!
What did you do prior to joining Little Feat?
PB: I had a band in Laurel Canyon it was a garage band we were called the Led Enema.
BW: Come on!
PB: I swear to God! We almost had a record deal with Atlantic Records; we had Ahmet Ertegun sitting in our basement, and he actually offered us a deal! The leader of the band was this crazy harmonica player Louie Lista, who knew Hollywood characters like Rickie Lee Jones, but somehow we wound up turning the deal down, and I really don’t recall the details as to why? Soon after that I got the call from Little Feat and said see you later. Oh, we wanted to title our album “Hot Shit From the Led Enema.”
BW: Oh, my God!
PB: It was a hard rocking band that played very loud music, with Captain Beefheart-type lyrics. It was time to move on. Plus, I knew Lowell since high school, who at this time was already starting to play with the Mothers. Lowell came to see Led Enema once and thought we were a wacky bunch of kids! [More laughs] So getting with Little Feat was a pretty good career move.
BW: I’d say, and forty years on you are still in the band.
PB: I know, the fortunate thing about Little Feat is that we never play the same songs the same way night after night. So it never gets boring.
BW: A similar concept like the Grateful Dead used to do live.
BW: Little Feat did breakup for a while.
PB: Yes, after Lowell passed on.
BW: But wasn’t he already leaving the band to support his solo album?
PB: He was on the road with Billy Payne and had come to the conclusion of splitting up. At that point I was in a fog and went with Billy, and started to work with Nicolette Larson. Craig Fuller was also in our band, and we just started to put this all together when Lowell passed, and somehow the whole thing fell apart. I did a few other side projects, and everyone went there own ways. Then in ’86 we got together and did a little jam session and thought gosh this sounds really good, so we decided to put the band back together.
BW: So Little Feat had a long hiatus.
PB: Oh yeah, seven years. And we’ve been together since for over twenty-five years.
BW: No changes anytime soon?
PB: No, plus I have a solo thing going on. I also work with Fred Tackett, and Little Feat, so there’s plenty of diversity to keep things interesting for all of us.
BW: And you are coming to New York City soon.
PB: I can’t wait. I love New York! We’re playing a summer show outdoors, the last few years we’ve come to New York City in the dead of winter, so it’s going to be nice to be there in the summertime. And I think Papa Grows Funk is opening for us. I also heard that the night before us Dr. John is playing, so it will be a funky weekend in New York City. So if they’ve got some gumbo and some crawfish, I’m all over it!
BW: Did you ever record with Dr. John?
PB: The very first recording I ever did was with Mac. I was eighteen years old, Lowell booked the session on Sunset in Los Angeles; my brother Michael played drums, I played guitars, Lowell George played guitar, and of course Mac on piano. We did a song that eventually wound up on a Little Feat album, but I can’t remember the name of the song. I was wide-eyed, never been in a studio before, and playing with Dr. John!
BW: Have you ever heard anyone speak as foul-mouth than Mac?
PB: He’s the best. [laughs] If you want to set him off get him to talk about the record industry.
BW: And the wetlands, too. When Joel Dorn passed they had a tribute for Dorn. Mac and Les McCann were backstage and were going back and forth, McCann told a story about telling Joel that he wanted to have sex with his wife. It was one of the dirtiest conversations I ever heard. In the end Dorn told Les that if he didn’t love him so much, he would have punched him the mouth, it was wild.
PB: You know the education that goes on outside from being onstage is just phenomenal. [Laughs]
BW: I’m sure you’ve seen your share.
I look forward to seeing you in New York City Paul.
PB: Cool Bob, we’ll be playing some of the new tunes off of Rooster Rag, plus some old tidbits too.
I suspect you must have a quantity of jazz albums in your record collection at home?
PB: I do. Charles Mingus is most prominent, if I was a better musician I would probably play more jazz.
BW: Come on Paul, you are no slouch of a musician.
PB: [Laughing again] Thanks Bob.
BW: Thank you Paul, see you soon.
PB: Bob, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
BW: Same here, Paul.
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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