Paul Barrere is my Dixie Chicken (08/02/12)

August 2, 2012

Deborah Miller, Entertainment Columnist

If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken …


I’m confessing right here and now that I have my own personal rock anthem.  No, not exactly written for me, though if truth be told, I have inspired a song or two. I’ve actually had several anthems, each a punctuating high note for my life at the time.  My first was Brown Eyed Girl (still applicable today), followed by Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, then The Stones Sweet Virginia, and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But, at the top of the list, pretty much since it came out in 1973, is Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken.  I can’t explain why except to say that the song moves me to get up and move. 


Little Feat always felt indefinable. Were they rock? Were they blues? Were they New Orleans funk? How about all the above. They sure can boogie and their energy level on stage is always on the upper range of smokin’.  They are the one band that’s as good live, if not better, than they are on album. No surprise, considering the serious pedigree of the band, various members of which came together by way of Frank Zappa’s Mother’s of Invention.  


Back in 1978 when I was living in Atlanta and working for the Warner Bros. Artist Development Director, he got sent in one direction and asked me to go the other direction for a few shows with Little Feat, who were touring in support of Waiting for Columbus. To say I was excited would be an understatement, but to discover that I’d actually be working with them in my own hometown of Chapel Hill was just a really fine bowl of sausage milk gravy. They stayed at the old Holiday Inn on the Boulevard, played Carmichael Auditorium, and when they asked if I could set up a golf game for them, I turned them over to my Dad, who took them out to Finley Golf Course, and even played 18 holes with them.  I ultimately received a gold album for my insignificant role in that tour.  Maybe it IS the little things.


I was just as excited recently for the opportunity to talk with Paul Barrere, guitarist/slide player/lead and background vocalist for Little Feat prior to their upcoming August 4th show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.


When I mentioned that former Chapel Hill visit to Paul, his memory pulled up one nugget.  “Wasn’t that the basketball arena?” he asked.  When I confirmed that it was, he said “I just remember that Dean Smith wasn’t pleased that we were playing on his court. Even though they covered it, he was still worried about the floor.”


Once he and I got past all the reminiscing, the so and so says “hey,” and I’m a friend of “what’s his name,” we got down to the business of talking about what’s new with Little Feat.


Rooster Rag, their 16th album, and the first with new material in almost 7 years, just gets more enjoyable with each listen. I was hooked from the first track, a jumpin’, jivin’Candyman Blues, an old Mississippi John Hurt classic.


Paul was as eager to talk about Little Feat and Rooster Rag as I was and our phone conversation was peppered with lots of teasing and laughter.  Does it get any better than this?


Little Feat  $30

Cat’s Cradle

Sat., Aug. 4

with The Villans

Doors: 7:30pm | Show: 9:00pm


Q & A

with Little Feat’s Paul Barrere
guitar/slide player, lead & background vocals


DM:  Have you ever played at Cat’s Cradle?


PB:  You know, we came through there when I played with Catfish Hodge and the Bluesbusters back in 1985.  Just the two of us and we had a great time.


DM:  This tour has you on a tight schedule. You aren’t here long enough to even really explore Carrboro or Chapel Hill.


PB:  Oh, yeah, usually when we finally hit the road it’s like one night here, one night there. We keep moving. They usually send people out to take care of us ‘cause we’re so old, you know? [laughing].    


DM:  Rooster Rag is your 16th album and has been called THE perfect summer soundtrack.  I love Little Feat’s ability to capture blues and classic rock with a little bayou thrown in without even seeming like you’re working hard at it.


PB:  It’s a quality to Little Feat’s music that I think a lot of people appreciate, because it’s always about having a good time. We’ve never been really heavy politically or with heavy love songs or ballads. It’s always about getting that good feeling and feeling good.


DM:   Wait.  Dixie Chicken’s NOT a love song?


PB:  [Laughing] Well, it is, sort of  … you know on Rooster Rag, I explain the song Just a Fever that I wrote with Stephen Bruton as a love song with an AA twist to it. [laughter]


DN:  Even though it’s your first album of new material in seven years, did Rooster Rag feel like a natural progression as it was unfolding?


PB:  It did. Since we’ve put this thing out and been doing all these interviews, people have been saying “why did it take so long?”  And my answer is “well, it’s just one of those things where, first and foremost, Little Feat has been working on the road. For years we’ve been doing 120 dates a year, and it’s only been these last three years that we’ve cut it back to 80.  When we’d get off the road, the last thing anybody wanted to do was sit down and write, or go into a studio so … when they say “why did it take so long?”  I say “because it wasn’t time.”


DM:  You can’t push genius.


PB:   Exactly. You can’t push genius. It’s like that Orson Wells line about wine. We will sell no wine before its time [laughing].


DM:  What a treat to have Mississippi John Hurt’s Candyman Blues on the new album. Could be a new classic for you guys.


PB:  It could be.  It’s funny because when I first started playing guitar when I was 13, I was really into folk music and folk blues. There was a little club in LA called the Ash Grove where all the old blues cats would come through and play. People like Taj Mahal started out there. He actually gave lessons in playing harmonica down there. They had a little record store as well and one day I was going through the records and I found the cover to that song. I thought “this looks interesting” so I took it home and I put it on and thought “oh, man, this is great.” I really gravitated toward things like Flying Delta and his version of Stagger Lee and I had listened to Candyman, but I’d never really listened to it, if you know what I mean.  It wasn’t until later on that I started to listen to the lyrics and I said “oh, my God, this is perfect for me … it fits my personality to a T.” So I started throwing just a couple of verses in at the end of Down on the Farm with a more raucous feel to it than Mississippi John Hurt’s original plan for it.  When we started to do Rooster Rag in February of 2011, it was going to be a blues record with a full version of The Candyman Blues. We also recorded Mellow Down Easy and it turned out those are the only two real blues songs that wound up on the record. That’s why I put them first and last to sandwich all the new material in between.


DM:  Kind of like bookends.


PB:  Yeah, it’s kind of apropos.


DM:  How is audience responding to it?


PB:  They love ‘em. Once again, another seamless transition for us. I know a lot of people come to the Little Feat shows wanting to hear the classics, but we’ve always incorporated all the new music we’ve created since we put the band back together in ’87. So with these newer classics like Let it Roll and Hate to Lose Your Love added to the repertoire, it keeps people engaged, if you will. And the best thing about it is, it’s timeless. That kind of music is something that you can’t pigeonhole “this came from the 60’s,” “this came from the 70’s,” “this came from the 80’s.” 


DM:  In the video of Rooster Rag on the Little Feat website, there’s a rooster strutting around on stage pecking at this and that ... is the rooster on tour with you or do you hire a local rooster in every town?


PB:  [laughing hard] Oh, my God, it’s a really funny story.  We’re now with Rounder Records, who are just great fantastic people. It’s like the old days of working with people who are into music as opposed to numbers. They said they wanted to an EPK (an Electronic Press Kit), so we were going to shoot a video along with a bunch of interviews. One of our managers, of course, the one who lives in New York City said “Don’t you think it would be great if we had a rooster walking around the set?”  I said “Well, this is Hollywood. That means you’re going to have to hire a rooster wrangler.”  So this lady came in with this rooster, which was docile at first, until we started doing the song. Corn was strewn around the set for the rooster to kind of keep him in line. I was stupid enough to be wearing flip flops. The thing started to think my toes were corn, which is why I’m dancing around like a fool. [laughing]


DM:  So you do not have a rooster on tour with you? [laughing]


PB:  Well, not an actual rooster, but you know … we are all guys. [laughing]


DM:  You and Bill Payne are such a good match because you’re basically musical opposites – him bringing a technical seriousness and you balancing that with street cred.   What would you say is the one thing you two have learned from each other that neither of you had before you met?


PB:  What I’ve picked up from Bill is more of a chordal sense, if you will. He’s really great at taking a three chord blues progression and making it in to something a little more special by the addition of passing chords. I think what I’ve added to him is a sense of silliness [laughing].  Billy can be real serious on occasion, but if you can’t have fun in this life time, then what are you doin’?


DM:  Then you need to just move on down the road.


PB:  Exactly!


DM:  As long as you’ve all been together, does it ever get old? 


PB:  Oh, sure, the traveling gets really old at this point. The joke amongst the band members is that we do the gigs for free and get paid to ride the bus.


DM:  The audience NEVER gets tired of hearing Dixie Chicken, do you get tired of playing it?


PB:  No. The fun thing about Dixie Chicken is that it just keeps evolving. The way we’ve always incorporated improvisation into our songs, or what the kidses call jamming, is always been a cornerstone for Little Feat so we don’t have to parade the songs out just exactly the way they were recorded. We can bring in a song and do 20 minutes.


DM:  With all the electronic tweaking and fixing that goes on in the studio, most groups just can’t do justice to an album when they start to perform it.  But Little Feat is equally as good live, if not better, than on album.  You bring something else to the live version that is magical.


PB:  Ever since I joined the band, that’s been true.


DM:  So you brought it to the band? [laughing]


PB:  [laughing]  Well … no, I remember seeing them as a quartet and I actually auditioned for the band as a bass player back in ’69 and failed miserably. I’d known Lowell for years before and they opened a show for Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart that was just phenomenal. I adore Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. They were something special to say the least. Having the opportunity to meet and hang with Don was fantastic. They played like crazy. I was telling Lowell “if you add me to this band, we could be the American Rolling Stones.”


DM:  You’re also a visual artist. Tell me about your latest or last painting? 


PB:  It was a collage. I took a whole bunch of old Little Feat passes and did a collage on a table.  That’s the last thing I did.  A friend of mine and I bet on all the Triple Crown races and we have a sack of losing tickets, so now I think I’ll do a collage of a racehorse.  The last real extravaganza piece I did was a combination sculpture/painting and it was something I called Rainforest Reflections.  I built this cityscape on a big piece of plywood and cut it like it was the New York City skyline.  As I’m sanding it, thinking maybe I would stain it, I decided to paint a forest on it because the rainforest is sort of disappearing and I gave it to an organization called Music Cares (Music Cares provides critical assistance for music people in times of need). They auctioned it off and it wound up being in a book called Musicians as Artists. My piece was right before Tony Bennett’s.  There are some other great artists in there too, like Ron Wood, David Bowie, John Lennon, and Iggy Pop. It was a great honor. I wish I knew who they auctioned the piece off to and I should probably try to find out.


DM:  How different is your approach to painting than to writing or learning a new song?


PB:  Painting is different.  I used to have a little area in my house where I had an easel and my paints set up, but that was before my kids got bigger and took over everything. The great thing about creating a piece of art is that you become so entrenched in it that it’s like that whole time space continuum thing goes out the window. The next thing you know it’s five hours later and it feels like five minutes, and you think “whoa, where did that time go?” Whereas, when you’re writing music, you’re picking on chords, stopping, making notes, a lyric comes to you … it doesn’t take you away as much until you have the piece finished and you’re playing it.  Creating a work of art, there’s nothing like it.


When I was 18 and was doing a lot of art and music … actually a lot more art than music ... I had a friend, who was a mentor, who told me it’s not so much the finished piece or whether you sell it and make a lot of money, the joy is in the doing. That’s really where it’s at. 


DM:  I must have been living under a rock, but I just found out that Inara George is Lowell’s daughter. 


PB:  Isn’t she fantastic?  The Burden to Be was spectacular, but the work she did recently with Van Dyke Parks with the horns and stuff is just … all of a sudden you’re just transposed back to the 30’s, early 40’s.


DM:  How much of Lowell is in her?  


PB:  Certainly an awful lot of talent. She was so young when he passed that she never got an opportunity to meet him and I’m sure if he was alive and heard her do a cover of a Hall and Oates song, he’d probably would have [laughing] … but let’s not go into that.


DM:  Did I hear that she’s sung on stage with Little Feat?


PB:  Oh, yes, she’s been on stage with us a couple of times. When we did that Join the Band album project produced by Jimmy Buffett, we had all these big artists, like Dave Matthews, Vince Gill, EmmyLou Harris and Sonny Landreth come and do Little Feat songs, Inara sang Trouble. It’s just one of the most beautiful versions ever.


DM:  You also golf.  Have you ever played golf with Willie Nelson and don’t you think that would be fun?


PB:  I have never played golf with Willie, but I think it would be incredible. Kind of like a dream come true.  If all the stars align properly, one of the things I’ve been working on with a friend who is a professional caddy is this golf tournament called the Rockin’ Caddy Open to raise money for ALS. What we’re going to do is match a caddy with a rock and roller, and then sell three spots to people to make up the foursome. It’s been something we’ve been trying to do for the last four years, but the economy being what it was, we could never find sponsors. Now it looks like we’ve got a sponsor lined up, and we might get this thing done in 2013.  Willie will be invited, as will Alice Cooper and Glenn Frey. There are a lot of us rock and rollers who are golfers. It should be a lot of fun.


DM:  Knowing that I was going to talk to you, I put a post on Facebook asking folks to tell me what they’d like for me to ask you.


DM:  This is from Mel - How do you channel Lowell’s slide breaks?


PB:  [laughing] I don’t. I’ve always had my own kind of style. The fortunate thing was that for those six or seven years that we were apart before we put the band back together, I’d really gotten back into playing a lot more slide and so it was a pretty easy transition.  There are signature licks that you have to play like in Fat Man in the Bathtub and Dixie Chicken, but for the most part, it’s just me being a fool.


DM:  My friend Andy would like you to say a few words in remembrance of Neon Park.


PB:  Oh, my goodness.  Well, first and foremost, we miss you, Mr. Neon. I can think of no better tip of the hat than what we did with the cover art on Rooster Rag. We hired Gary Houston, a gentleman up in Portland, Oregon who has a little company called Voodoo Catbox. Gary does that kind of poster art like the old Fillmore Days, and I thought he’d be the perfect complement to the artwork that Neon used to do for us. The band always wanted to have a piece of art on the cover rather than our ugly mugs up there.


DM:  Did Neon design what I call Tomato Lady?


PB:  Yeah, he did. It’s an actual painting and we took the name of the painting Waiting for Columbus to be the name of the album. Neon’s thinking on that was that when Columbus discovered America, he discovered the tomato in the hammock. Which made it a lot better for all those people on those three-masted ships, because now instead of laying on hard boards, they’re swaying in a hammock. And why the tomato is squeezing her tomatoes, I have no idea. [laughing].


DM:  What music would people be surprised to find either in your CD player or on your IPOD? 


PB:  Probably the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach.  You get on an airplane and start at the first movement of the Brandenburg Concertos and before you know it half the flight’s done.


DM:  This has been fun, Paul.  I’m looking forward to see you and Little Feat, August 4 at Cat’s Cradle.


PB:   You’re quite welcome, Deborah, it’s been good talking to you, and I’ll see you at the show.