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Little Feat visits Wichita to celebrate 45 years of 'Waiting for Columbus'

Hank Randall

Veteran band Little Feat is currently celebrating the 45th anniversary of its landmark album Waiting For Columbus. For vocalist and guitarist Scott Sharrard, who first played with the band in 2019, it's an example of a live recording that elevated the status of live rock albums.

Scott Sharrard cut his musical teeth on Little Feat and the Allman Brothers Band, a fact that's maybe not too remarkable considering that he was born in the 1970s and came of age of in the '80s, a time when both groups were reuniting and expanding their musical legacy with new recordings and burning-hot live shows.

What is remarkable is that the Michigan-born and Wisconsin-raised guitarist and vocalist played with both Gregg Allman and, now, Little Feat, a band he joined in 2019. His time with the late Allman Brothers leader resulted in two late-career LPs, including the highly acclaimed "Southern Blood." It was released after Allman's death and features the haunting Sharrard co-write "My One True Friend" (which, along with the album, earned a Grammy nomination).

Along the way, Sharrard has recorded a series of well-received solo efforts, including his most recent, "Rust Belt," which captures beautifully the spirit of his Michigan and Wisconsin (and Pennsylvania) roots.

Sharrard is currently on the road with Little Feat, celebrating the band's landmark live album "Waiting for Columbus." The group performs in Wichita on Monday, Nov. 28, at The Cotillion Ballroom.

Sharrard recently spoke with KMUW about landing the Little Feat gig as well as why "Waiting for Columbus" has stood the test of time.

Interview Highlights

You came into the Little Feat world in the strangest of circumstances. You were supposed to sub on two gigs and, the first night, guitarist and vocalist Paul Barrere — who you were filling in for — died. But the music was something you were prepared for because you'd been a lifelong fan of the band.

I was listening to the constantly when I was growing up. My dad is a musician and used to play their songs. When they put the band back together [in 1988] and did the album "Let It Roll," I saw them on tour a few times; they were life-altering shows. We used to go to see all the rock shows, so I saw Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers, Dr. John. But also Bobby "Blue" Bland, B.B. King, Little Milton. Eventually, when I was a teenager, I went to all the jazz clubs [with my dad] and saw all the jazz greats. But the Allman Brothers and Little Feat were the ones that always really stuck out to me in terms of their music, their arrangements, the way they performed.

When it came to filling in for Paul … Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams were opening for the band when Paul got ill [in 2019] and they filled in all the dates they could. On the last two dates of the leg, they had to go do something else. [Little Feat keyboardist] Bill Payne started looking for someone. He asked around the Doobie Brothers camp and talked to his manager at the time, Cameron Sears, about me. Luckily, I knew some of the Doobie guys and some of [the guys I'd played with in Gregg Allman's band] were with the Doobies at the time. Everyone recommended me for those last two shows.

The first one happened the day Paul passed away and it happened well before the gig. It was very odd to have to meet the guys like that for the first time and the go on stage and then have Bill announce to the fans that Paul had died. It had not been made public at that point. The energy was palpable for sure. I was extremely nervous leading up to the gig and once we started playing the muscle memory kicked in. I'd also had about three to four weeks to prepare, and I had really used that time well. At the end of the gig, everyone in the band looked at me and said, "You're the guy." We haven't looked back since.

You landed that gig just in time for 2020, when everything in the world on hold.

I had a lot of momentum going on with my solo career in 2019. I was doing a lot of record producing. I was doing a lot of teaching, which is something I'm really passionate about as well. I was moving toward a really good deal with a booking agent who, bizarrely, wound up being Little Feat's agent. Just by coincidence. All roads were leading toward Little Feat, basically.

In February 2020, I did a few more shows with the band in Jamaica at Feat Camp. Then we all know what happened in March. But we basically did a lot of pandemic videos. We did a lot of long-distance recording. We did a version of "Long Distance Love," appropriately enough with Amy Helm. We cut Bill Payne's song "When All Boats Rise." We changed drummers. In the summer of 2020 Tony Leone (Levon Helm, Phil Lesh). We cut all those songs with him.

That was his audition, to do all those songs. Not an easy task and obviously he passed it with flying colors. He's also an old friend of mine. And then we changed management. We changed to Vector Management (Peter Frampton, John Hiatt) and brought over an amazing crew and road manager. All these amazing things happened in that year "off."

In that time, I also worked on [late Little Feat founder] Lowell George's sound, Paul's sound, and my own sound on vocals and guitar. That time off the road allowed all that work to happen. When we got back together in November '21 we were raring to go.

You're celebrating 45 years of "Waiting for Columbus." I think live albums sometimes have this reputation of being stopgaps between studio releases. But here's a case of a record that really elevated the art form of the live album.

"Waiting for Columbus" was always one of the most important albums of my life from the time … I started playing guitar at the age of 10. It was on classic rock radio all the time, too, when I was first listening to the radio. Even for a kid the music was very much alive and vital. It didn't feel like an oldies album. It felt very much of the moment. I suppose, at that point, in the '80s, it was only about 10 years old. When you're a kid you see these pictures of these guys and think they're so much older than you and they're not really.

I think that record is an incredible piece of work. It's an incredible summation of everything they'd accomplished in the studio leading up to that, which usually the best live albums are. "At Fillmore East" is really a summation of everything the Allman Brothers Band had done to that point. "Frampton Comes Alive!" after that record it was almost like he couldn't top it in his career for a long time.

So there is a history of these types of live albums. I think "Waiting for Columbus" is the best one, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that George Massenburg was recording it and mixing it. I know for a fact that Lowell George re-cut a ton of the guitars and vocals in the studio. Paul, too, I think redid a lot of vocals and guitars. I think they did a lot of work on that record to make it a cohesive statement. Even with the way it starts, with them singing in the hallway to warm up; it's a spine-tingling moment on any album that you put on. It's one of the most incredible openings to an album ever and the way that it leads into "Fat Man In The Bathtub" … the album is really a work of art. It's not just documentation of a live show. They really crafted it into a perfect set of music.

I have the super deluxe box set that came out with all the unreleased material and you hear some of the stuff that didn't make it and say, "Holy cats! That's as good as the stuff that's on the album. These guys are really at the top of their game."

Absolutely. So many good versions and takes hit the cutting room floor, as you said. It seems like they recorded a lot of shows, which is a really smart way to do it. I think that's another reason it stands out: They put that extra care into recording a lot of shows and then put the extra care into the back end to kind of craft it into a … really, it's a seminal piece of work. I think every musician who hears that record loves it. The biggest stand-out to me on the record, if I had one track, would be "Mercenary Territory."

When you listen to the studio version and then you hear the version on "Waiting for Columbus," that live version is the definitive version of that song. I think they very, very, very rarely played it live, and I think that take of it and that sound they got with the Tower of Power horns and that slide solo and Lowell's vocal is just pure magic.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.