Remembering Little Feat's role in legendary Lubbock music story

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When Little Feat plays in Midland’s Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center Monday night, it’ll be a little homecoming for keyboardist Bill Payne – who was born in Waco and has deep roots in Texas.

Payne also had a role in a legendary Lubbock music story.

Little Feat at a recent performance in Colorado.
Little Feat at a recent performance in Colorado.

In 1982, a group of Lubbock high school students created their own prom night, renting Lubbock’s long-defunct Cotton Club and hiring the Maines Brothers Band to play.

Around 11 p.m., the doors to the club opened and in walked Lubbock’s Joe Ely, whose third Tornado Jam was the following day.

He wasn’t alone.

Linda Ronstadt, Jesse Taylor, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Ponty Bone, Payne and others crowded the stage.

At the time, Ronstadt was one of the biggest names in rock music – in town for the Tornado Jam.

“The stunned dancers stood there, mouths gaping, thinking: ‘Holy crap!’ Is that Linda Ronstadt?’” wrote Cary Banks, a member of the Maines Brothers Band, in his book, “Almost a Professional: My Life and Career as a West Texas Musician.”

“After the Ely entourage squeezed onto the stage, someone played a big E chord, Linda belted out ‘WELLLLLLL … That’ll be the day’ … the entire place erupted in screams, cheers and pandemonium,” Banks wrote of Ronstadt’s rendition of the Buddy Holly hit.

Payne was touring with Ronstadt at the time but is best known as co-founder of Little Feat more than 50 years ago.

Payne recently talked about Little Feat’s Dec. 5 show in Midland, remembering that Lubbock night 40 years ago.

Little Feat at a recent performance in Colorado.
Little Feat at a recent performance in Colorado.

“I remember Joe, Linda and I went after the show to Buddy Holly’s grave,” said Payne from his home in Montana, taking a break from Little Feat’s tour celebrating the 45th anniversary of the band’s “Waiting for Columbus.”

The live album is considered one of rock’s best. A 2012 Rolling Stone readers’ poll named it the seventh-greatest live album – decades after it was recorded.

Back then, Payne had no idea how beloved the record would become.

“We knew it was a great record. When I heard it in the studio, the hair on my arms went straight up. It sounded terrific. But in terms of knowing something would become iconic – I didn’t have a clue,” he said.

Payne’s family moved to Ventura, Calif., when he was a toddler. But he has roots in Haskell, Abilene and Moody, near Waco. His uncle ran a drug store in Moody that was one of the first in Texas. His dad ran a movie theater in the town “straight out of the ‘Last Picture Show,’” said Payne.

“Once a Texan, always a Texan, as they say,” said Payne.

Little Feat was founded by Payne and Lowell George and gained critical praise in the 1970s. In a 1973 Rolling Stone interview, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page said, “Band-wise, Little Feat is my favorite American group.”

The Feat broke up after George’s death in 1979 but reformed about ten years later and has recorded and toured since – along with members working with other bands. Payne has toured with the Doobie Brothers, for example.

They survived the deaths of original drummer Richie Hayward in 2010 and Paul Barrere in 2019, who’d joined the band a few years after it began.

For a long time, they built a following as a jam band – performing long versions of songs with extended solos – and changing the set list from night to night.

Creating a tour based on the same set list every night – recreating the live album – was a change, said Payne, but one that’s proved successful.

“It’s the iconic record we have. You present it to your fans and let them make the decision … It’s proved to be very, very good. Looking at the faces of people throughout the time we’ve been doing this – which only started in November of 2021 – people have been on board in a meaningful way,” said Payne.

The band may play the songs in the live album’s order, but that doesn’t mean playing the exact same notes every night.

“We take people on the same journey we are on that night as to where we’re taking solos and how long they are. It’s just not written in stone. I think that adds to the energy and to the fun,” he said.

Payne was asked if someone’s never seen the band, what should they expect?

“Some really good musicianship and – literally and figuratively – great songs. There’s an eclecticism to our music you should be aware of if you have never heard us. We play rock and roll, we play some jazz, but the songs are easy to listen to for the most part,” he said.

“If you’re a musician and have ever tried to play them – you know – they’re not easy songs to play. So, there's that sort of smoke and mirrors at play as well. As long as it sounds easy,” he added.

“It’s a lot of fun to hear what we do from night to night. Which is why we – like the Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers – can claim an attachment to an audience,” he said.

The band pulls from many styles – a mix of California rock, funk, folk, jazz, country, rockabilly and New Orleans swamp boogie and more.

Payne mentioned other bands – like the Eagles or Doobie Brothers – who are true to the song.

“They do have moments where they stretch out, but there’s a mode of operation where they want to replicate the record people know. That’s a valid way to do it. But it is not the way a Little Feat operates,” said Payne.

Little Feat has one more – very loose – connection to Lubbock.

Arguably the band’s most famous song – Dixie Chicken – inspired a female country band to call themselves the Dixie Chicks more than 30 years ago. But that name started before Lubbock native Natalie Maines joined the band, which recently dropped “Dixie” from its name.

Little Feat with special guest Nicki Bluhm

When: 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 5 (doors open 6 p.m.)

Where: Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, Midland

Cost: $49.95 to $99.95 (VIP packages also available)

Details: Wagner Noel has a clear bag policy

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Remembering Little Feat's role in legendary Lubbock music story