Bill Payne is a founder and piano/keyboard player for the legendary band Little Feat. In his breaks from the band – he has played sessions for musicians like Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, and The Doobie Brothers to name a few. Payne is making a rare solo appearance at The Birchmere on this Sunday night, June 23, 2013 at 7:30 PM. He will be accompanied by Little Feat drummer Gabe Ford. The intimate show will certainly highlight Bill Payne as an artist as he plays his solo music and shows off his photography. He also promises a Question and Answer session after the show. Highlighting his solo work will be songs he created with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. He will also play some classic Little Feat songs as well.
Mike: This tour is a chance for fans to hear a different side of you
Bill: I have written 15 songs with Robert Hunter and I have a bunch of other songs I have written with other people. I just finished one a couple nights ago with Paul Muldoon. Paul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who teaches at Princeton and holds the top chair at Oxford and is an amazing guy. I have also written a song with my son Evan who happens to lives in Ireland as well. Paul is an Irish poet. A lot of good stuff out there I’m sharing with people.
I’m not doing a Little Feat show; I am playing some Little Feat music but I’m not up there doing “Dixie Chicken,” “Willin,’ or “Fat Man.” I want people to see who I am – is a good way to put it. It involves my music and involves other people’s music as well. It involves Gabe Ford this time. Gabe is joining me on drums and he is Little Feat’s drummer. We might have a guest or two – I’m not sure – sometimes that unravels at the last minute. I did a fair amount of touring the last few weeks where it was just me on stage – and that seamed to work really well too.
There will be a question and answer period on top of everything. and the Q& A alone is quite interesting. I want people to know they will be able to interview or ask questions to a guy name Joe Rocco, and Joe was Little Feat’s truck driver for a long time actually, so if you talk about the song “Willin’” – I won’t be playing it – but Joe is the real deal. He’s driving even though we will be sharing driving responsibilities. Joe is out there to drive Gabe and me around to these gigs, setting up gear. He’s a comrade in arms he is a great guy. I have a really good, good photo of him too. If people go to Billpaynecreative.com they can check out my photography. I am going to be showing that and talking about it. It is a different evening. I’ll tell you right now it is a really good one. People who have been on the sidelines going, “Gee, I don’t know what it is!” and they will come down and check it out. Everyone who has seen it has loved it. I’m surprised how intimate of an evening it is too.
How did it the Q&A come about?
I think Dennis McNally thought of it. I can’t remember, but I will give it to Dennis. Dennis was the publicist for the Grateful Dead for 20-25 years and he is my manager. Dennis was out on the first part of this tour telling stories about the Grateful Dead. This time we felt it best that I go out with another musician and in this case it is Gabe Ford. I will be doing a lot of songs by myself and Gabe will be out there so there will be a different dynamic.
At the Q&A sometimes people are a little shy but once they get into it- it’s fine. We don’t do it for too long. It is a nice addition to the set. When you think of going to hear people like James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, and Leo Kottke – the storytelling aspect of what I get into is not too much different than what those guys, Jimmy Buffett what they do.
Either you introduce a song that way or you take a second to go on an offshoot and in my case I talk about working with Willie Dixon who wrote every major blues song you can think of – that ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ did at least “Backdoor Man,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Little Red Rooster,” and more. So I got some stories about that and a few other things. From night to night it changes up. I’m also a pretty good writer which is the art of telling stories as well. I haven’t even begun to dive into some of that. I wrote a pretty good article on Richard Manuel’s piano which I played on “Rooster’s Rag.” Richard Manuel was the keyboardist for the Band, Levon Helm and that whole crew, and there are a lot of areas we can get into. Mainly there is a lot of really great music, and I look forward to sharing that with everybody.
How different is it for you to play solo or with just Gabe, compared to playing with a full band?
For one thing, thank you – this is a good question. A song like “Cat Fever,” is an older song of mine which I very well might play. I didn’t really start doing this until last year when I was 63, so 64 now. I was trying to play “Cat Fever” like I was playing it in the band and it wasn’t working. It was okay. About a month ago, I tried something different with it. I am not going to change it whole scale – but I am going to maneuver it in a different manner – make it a little more intimate and give it more dynamics. It worked perfect.
So, I thought, “There you go!” You just change things to fit the voice and you’re not trying to worry about drums on it, or bass, or guitar. I will probably want to do it on solos. Though Gabe Ford is one of those guys, his Uncle is Robben Ford who is a fabulous guitar player who has worked with Little Feat. Gabe Ford comes from a very musical family – I will just put it that way. He can play anything and it is a pleasure to play with Gabe.
You mentioned early you had written some new songs with Robert Hunter. How did working with Robert Hunter compare with working with Lowell George and some of the other songwriters you have worked with in the past?
Robert gives me a lot more freedom for starters. I am just dealing with his lyrics, and with Lowell George it is dealing with lyrics or maybe music as well. It is a different way they both work. It’s just not as difficult. I don’t have to worry about some guy going, “I don’t get that change musically.” If Robert doesn’t like something he is going to tell me. If lyrically he sends me something I can’t sing then I need to see if we can do something a little differently. Then he goes, ‘BOOM! – try this!” It’s usually not only better but a lot better.
I have got a lot more freedom now, but what it has also done – because I have written so many songs with him now – is it’s opened me up to writing with other people. So I am out writing and performing with Paul Muldoon, my son Evan, with Tom Garnsey with a group called The Hooligans – in Montana, and Ben Bullington who lives in Montana as well, (who we wrote a beautiful song called “The Last Adios.’ Songwriting is never easy – but it has opened me up to do it in a manner that avoids catching myself so much.
You’re still planning to play some Little Feat songs, so how will they change with this intimate and stripped down setting?
They change a little bit. The intensity of something like “Oh Atlanta” remains intense, but maybe I put a New Orleans edge on it as opposed to a straight ahead rock and roll though with Gabe, so I can do either one. By myself, I find it easier to adopt the New Orleans approach. (He goes on to play me a couple examples, which was an awesome treat. You will have to wait until Sunday night to hear some of it. They are two totally different things, but they get the point across. So it is a fun way to do it.
You are also working in some of your photography and artwork into this show as well…
Yeah, I am. It’s like everything else. Being creative is really what I am sharing with people. This is a ridiculous career I’ve had and continue to have. I didn’t know I was a photographer until 14 years ago – maybe even a little earlier than that – 12 years ago. When I first started, people were going, “Well you can’t do landscapes with little point and shoot cameras” and I go, “Well here is what I did with it.” They go, “You took those photos with that camera?” I said, “Yeah, I guess I was too ignorant to know – I guess.”
I have had a life time of people going, “Why are you playing the piano? You take photos – what’s that about? You write – what are your writing about?” It’s all good – at least people are asking what the heck you are doing. It’s rarely like, “Oh yeah – that’s cool – come on in.” It’s met with a little bit of weariness which I like. I think that is kind of what drives me as a human being. I’m completely fine with people who get what I am doing.
But for those that don’t, which is the way it is with a lot of folks, I’m like, “But I’m not that aggressive about it,” but I want to say, “Here’s what it is about – and what do you think now?” They go, “Oh yeah, I completely get it.” Which has really been the case not just for my solo shows; this has been the case for Little Feat over the years.
“How can you play rock and roll, then play jazz, then do this and do that? You tell me – do you like it or not?” I love it. “How did you stumble upon doing that?” Because were driven by influences an not by a singular genre. If we dig, you know, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Glenn Gould on the classical side, how do you plan all of this? You figure out a way as an artist to incorporate that into your vocabulary. That is how you do it. I’m not here to teach anybody anything – but by demonstrating things and by doing it. I think the ultimate complement to being an artist and having an audience – and not necessarily blurring the lines between the two – because this evening I’m going to perform as an artist to his audience – but the audience will get involved too.
I think that is a really good thing. We kind of tear down the barriers a little bit – and I like that. We have a terrific fanbase we put together years ago. I am friends with a lot of people – as is everyone in the band – with various folks not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world. Most artists sort of operate from the standpoint of staying an arms length from your fans. In some cases, you have to do that it; it depends on the person like anything else. But there are a lot of other people who I have stayed at their house and had them come over and visit with me – families – and this sort of thing. It has really been a unique experience.
You’ve had a lot of history in the Washington area with Little Feat, so what is your favorite memory of playing in the DC area?
That’s a very tough question to answer. Although it is in Maryland, it isn’t so much one singular thing – it was an amalgamation. It’s like when writers will take three different characters and fold them into one. I met Emmylou Harris. I met my first wife Fran Tate, and worked with George Massenburg, and Frannie sang on some songs. We wrote some songs together (my son Evan is from our marriage), so all of that was done up in that area and that was some interesting and wonderful times. Inara George, Lowell’s daughter was born while we were in the studio on July 4th; I think it was ’74 maybe. Lowell was in a really good head space and the band certainly was as well.
The fans from DC and the surrounding area adopted us as one of their own. It’s not one thing – but a lot of things. We always feel at home when we are in the area. I’ve always appreciated that about the corridor of the country. It is hot and humid during the summer. The history in Washington, DC has always fascinated me. I just like going there, and I like dealing with folks, and this will be no exception.