The veteran jam band's new album involved Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and the Band's old piano.
Sometimes liner notes tell you little secrets about an album. More often you can discover those little secrets on the Internet.
Search around and you'll learn that Little Feat singer/keyboardist Bill Payne used two secret weapons to complete "Rooster Rag," the band's first album of new material in nine years -- Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (that's on the CD's liner notes) and a piano that belonged to Richard Manuel of the Band (that's on www.littlefeat.net).
First, the story behind the baby grand piano. It was in guitarist Johnny Lee Schell's recording studio in Studio City, Calif., where "Rooster Rag" was recorded.
"The piano damn near played itself," said Payne, who returns to the Minnesota Zoo next Sunday with Little Feat, the 43-year-old California funk-rock-blues band known for the tunes "Dixie Chicken" and "Rad Gumbo." "It was an easy instrument to play. I had questions about whether it was stylistically appropriate for certain songs, and it was appropriate for everything."
But a good instrument wasn't enough for Payne, 63, who has played with a slew of stars including Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger, Robert Plant, Linda Ronstadt, Buddy Guy, James Taylor and Phil Lesh. After recording with Manuel's piano, he did a little research and ended up writing an entire article (it's too long to call it a blog post).
Manuel's piano has an intriguing history. It was in Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, Calif. (where the Band rehearsed in 1976 for "The Last Waltz"), when the studio and all its contents were sold. The piano went to Connecticut, then back to Los Angeles and, eventually, through barter, Schell landed it.
To get the back story, Payne reached out to Garth Hudson, organist/saxophonist for the Band. Turns out that in the late 1960s, Manuel bought one of Steinway's smallest concert grands in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He found it at Vincitore's Hudson Valley Piano Center, a family-owned store opened in 1946 whose 94-year-old founder is still alive. Payne called the shop and talked Steinways with the proprietor. He also called the Band's old road manager, who had a story from 1972 involving the piano, a stash house, some college girls and a crazed hash dealer. (Please consult Payne's blog at the Little Feat website for details.)
New drummer, lyricist
The story about how Payne met Dead lyricist Hunter is much more mundane. It was through a mutual friend in the summer of 2011.
"We just hit it off," said Payne, who collaborated with Hunter on four songs on "Rooster Rag" and seven others that aren't yet recorded. "All our stuff is done pretty much through the Internet. Do I pinch myself that I'm writing with a guy who wrote all these iconic songs with Jerry Garcia? You bet. Who wrote an album's worth of material with Bob Dylan? Absolutely. It's OK to be a fan of people, but just don't let it get in the way of what you're supposed to do. That's the way it was working with Robert Hunter. I'm not a Deadhead, although in 1967 in high school, I went to the Fillmore and listened to those guys play."
Payne hadn't written any songs for seven years. So writing with Hunter was a boon. "It's like the most freedom one can imagine," the singer/pianist said this month from a Connecticut tour stop. "He's very cinematic in his approach. Very visual lyrics, great stories. I want the music to be as artful and as inventive as the lyrics. Writing with Robert, I'm completely in my element."
"Rooster Rag" is the first Little Feat studio album ever recorded without drummer Richie Hayward, who died in 2010. But Gabe Ford -- Feat's former drummer tech who is four years younger than the band itself -- has been performing with the band in concert for nearly three years. (Guitarist Paul Barrere, bassist Ken Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton have been in the group for 40 years, guitarist Fred Tackett for 20 years.)
"I didn't concentrate on what it was like to be without Richie in the studio as much as what Gabe Ford was presenting," said Payne, one of the band's three main vocalists and its sole surviving co-founder. "He winds up owning this record because of his performance. I point to a couple of tracks that show his thing off a bit. On 'Jamaica Will Break Your Heart,' there's some nice little jazz elements. When you dissect the rhythm section in 'Ragtop Down,' the arrangement called for it to shift to a different pulse but, on his own, Gabe takes off on the bridge and flourishes on the snare. Gabe and I also wrote a song together. It's all good."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream