Little Feat may be best remembered, if it’s remembered much at all, as a kind of proto-jam band, a bunch of competent West Coast session players combining smooth, laid-back New Orleans-style R&B and light funk with Southern rock. There’s a good case for this version of history: The band has spent more time as a revival act than it lasted in its brief, classic Lowell George-led incarnation in the ’70s, and the group has devoted most of the last two decades working the festival circuit as a nostalgia act. Since reuniting in 1989, Little Feat has released nearly as many live albums as studio discs.
This legacy, however, can’t overshadow the band’s remarkable early years and its peak period in the mid-’70s. George, a veteran of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, provided a skewed — and sometimes surrealistic — perspective, a whiskey-soaked baritone, and incendiary slide guitar that raised Little Feat above the pack. George’s particular genius dominates the first two albums (each of which contained a version of “Willin’,” one of the all-time great truck-driving songs). On these two rough but promising records, the group resembles Captain Beefheart, with nods to the country blues of the midperiod Rolling Stones, as much as it does the Allman Brothers.
Dixie Chicken, the third album, from 1973, defines Little Feat’s style. It’s a collective effort, with substantial contributions from guitarist Paul Barrére and keyboardist Billy Payne. Dixie Chicken is loose, elegant and soulful, tasteful and wise, expertly played by musicians as exuberant as they are proficient. (It’s also a classic California cocaine album, with hints of paranoia and the Apocalypse.) It’s the record the band has spent 30 off-and-on years trying to recapture.
George died in 1979 of a heart attack. Little Feat was through, until the band regrouped in 1989. The ensemble playing the SummerFun Festival bears little resemblance to the drug-addled masterminds who made Dixie Chicken, but the songs — “Dixie Chicken,” “Roll Um Easy,” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” — are still there.
Little Feat performs Saturday, July 29, as part of SummerFun on the main campus of Lincoln Land Community College, 5250 Shepherd Rd. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 when the gates open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Recycled Records, Cub Foods, Schnucks on Sangamon Avenue, Qik-n-EZ, and United Community Bank locations.