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Little Feat - Highwire Act Live in St. Louis 2003 (Mercury Studios/UMG)

12 January 2024
Captured on August 22, 2003, this set includes Little Feat’s 2003 lineup performing a career-spanning set at The Pageant in St. Louis. The set list draws from nine of the band’s 13 albums at the time, as well as weekend anthem “Night on the Town” and reggae-infused blues of “I’d Be Lyin’” from the then-forthcoming 2003 release Kickin’ it at the Barn. This reissue takes advantage of the night’s high-definition recording by offering the concert footage on Blu-ray for the first time.

At the time of release, many fans considered this set to be the equal of 1978’s essential live album Waiting for Columbus in representing the continued strength of Little Feat following the 1979 death of founding frontman Lowell George. More than half of the Columbus tracks are repeated on Highwire Act for comparison, although it’s a minor shame that “Sailin’ Shoes” isn’t among the otherwise impressive selections. Those repeated cuts include George-era tracks “Willin’,” “Tripe Face Boogie,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Old Folks Boogie,” “Oh, Atlanta,” “Skin it Back,” “Spanish Moon,” and “Time Loves a Hero.”

The set brims with the band’s signature swampy southern rhythms, Paul Barrere’s razor-sharp slide guitar, Bill Payne’s sparkling piano, and a rare blend of rock, country, blues, funk, and soul. Drummer Richie Hayward adds his flair for New Orleans second-line rhythms to songs like classic “Dixie Chicken,” abetted as always by Kenny Gradney’s deep and soulful bass guitar and Sam Clayton’s effortless groove on percussion. Barrere’s guitar ducks and weaves with Fred Tackett’s guitar for intoxicating interplay and swapped solos during songs like the expansive “Day for Night.” The pair frequently step back allowing Payne to step out with jazz and soul-informed leads on various keyboards. Clayton’s percussion and gruff vocal are featured on “Spanish Moon.”

The band of top-caliber players stretches and improvises with the best of them during songs like “Skin it Back,” proving to be an intuitive jam band with unerring melodic sensibility to mesh with its body-moving rhythms. The eclectic set list adds zydeco flair while Payne plays a reedy accordion solo alongside Tackett’s mandolin and Hayward’s lively shuffle on “Cajun Girl” from Let it Roll.

Middle-era vocalist Shaun Murphy reaches into the rough-hewn soul of classic tracks like trucker anthem “Willin’” alongside Barrere. Murphy’s hard-edged, powerhouse lead vocal also elevates later fare including Payne’s “Cadillac Hotel” from 1995’s Ain’t Had Enough Fun and “The Blues Don’t Tell it All” from 1998’s Under the Radar.

The back half of the show includes a spirited run through a clutch of Lowell George-era favorites. “You know that you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill,” sings Barrere during “Old Folks Boogie.” The band may have aged toward the territory of the song, but Barrere assures the crowd of middle-aged true believers, declaring, “You’re never too old to boogie!” “Dixie Chicken” begins with the versatile Tackett’s trumpet solo before leaning into Payne’s saloon piano and Barrere’s soulful vocal and leaving room for Gradney’s bass feature.

Payne sings “Tripe Face Boogie,” followed by the saucy “Fat Man in the Bathtub” (featuring Hayward’s drum solo) before the band concludes the main set with a souped-up and rollicking 1988 hit single “Let it Roll.” Little Feat brings down the house during the encore with the gospel fervor of “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.”

The 17-song concert film and soundtrack omit only Let it Roll track “Voices on the Wind” and a second crack at show opener “Time Loves a Hero” from the 2003 concert. With the band’s captivating improvisational excursions, the generous performance clocks in at well over two hours.