QUITE A FEAT: Bill Payne, from left, Fred Tackett and Sam Clayton, shown here at Kenan Auditorium, help form the backbone of Little Feat. (Courtesy Gregg McCraw)

New guys Sharrard and Leone settle in, share vocals

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Little Feat never cheats its audience. It’s been that way over the past 54 years since the band was founded in 1969, regardless of the lineup, and Saturday’s show (April 29) was no exception at Kenan Auditorium on the UNC-Wilmington campus.

Feat played a sparkling two-hour set before a near-capacity crowd at the 1,000-seat theater prior to concluding its three-week “Boogie Your Spring Away” tour on Sunday at Charleston Music Hall in South Carolina. The band takes a two-month break before hitting the road again in late June to play 33 dates through October, playing full album versions of “Sailin’ Shoes” (released in 1972) and “Dixie Chicken,” (1973), before embarking on the Big Easy Cruise, Nov. 4-11.

At Kenan Auditorium, concert attendance was 849 with gross ticket sales of $75,000, according to veteran Charlotte promoter Gregg McCraw, president of Maxx Music. 

Little Feat’s short spring run gave hardcore fans the opportunity to hear a smorgasbord of standards and a few rarities after the band celebrated the 45th anniversary of “Waiting for Columbus,” their classic live album, by performing the record in its entirety in 2022.

In Wilmington, supporting act Miko Marks, a talented vocalist from Flint, Michigan, has a strong, passionate voice melding soul, R&B, rock and country. Marks, performing with two acoustic guitarists and a harmonica player, was a perfect compliment to the headliner that’s historically defied being pigeonholed into one specific style of music.  Instead, it’s an amalgamation of rock, blues and jazz, with a touch of country and Cajun rhythms stirred in the pot.

Little Feat has three members that have been in place for 50-plus years: keyboardist Bill Payne, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton. They’ve held on to make the music people still love to hear live after co-founders Lowell George, Richie Hayward and Paul Barrere died. Scott Sharrard took over as lead vocalist and guitarist after Barrere passed in 2019 and has found his groove since the band resumed touring post-pandemic. 

Sharrard, an avowed Little Feat fan and a stellar slide player, spent 10 years touring with the Gregg Allman Band before joining Feat in 2020. On Saturday, Sharrard’s voice shone, especially on “Two Trains” and “Long Distance Love,” both written by Lowell George. The latter tune was re-released by the band in 2020 playing remotely during the pandemic with Amy Helm on background vocals.

Drummer Tony Leone also joined Feat in 2020 after spending four years with Chris Robinson Brotherhood plus a stint with Phil Lesh & Friends. Leone brought fresh lead vocals to “Old Folks Boogie,” delighting a crowd skewed heavily toward the 60 to 70 age range. As a whole, they could all relate to the song’s crowning line, “When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.” 

Payne, co-founder of Little Feat and who turned 74 in March, still has plenty of body movement as he focuses full-time on Feat now after filling side gigs with The Doobie Brothers and String Cheese Incident over the past decade. Payne never ceases to amaze through his perfunctory keyboard skills, and on Saturday, he lent a steady hand with lead vocals on “Red Streamliner” and “Oh Atlanta,” a traditional crowd favorite.

MAKING HER MARKS: Miko Marks opened for Little Feat at Kenan Auditorium. (Courtesy Gregg McCraw)

If nothing else, Little Feat is known for its stellar musicianship. Fred Tackett, for example, a member of the band for 35 years, plays guitar, trumpet and mandolin, sometimes two of those instruments in the same song. Strings and brass are key pieces of the group’s repertoire, specifically two signature tunes, “Dixie Chicken and “Willin,’ the trucker anthem in which Marks joined the band to lend her soaring voice to the mix.

Harp player Mike LoBue, known as “The Bull” and part of the spring tour lineup, made a feisty cameo appearance on “Why Are People Like That,” a blues oldie written by Bobby Charles and sung by Clayton in his typical growl.   

The show wrapped up with “Rock and Roll Doctor” and “Dixie Chicken,” running immediately into “Tripe Face Boogie,”  staying true to the Waiting for Columbus recording. Both Dixie Chicken and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” early in the set gave the group room for extended jams. The ever-funky combo of “Spanish Moon” and “Skin It Back” served as a tasty encore.

For Maxx Music’s McCraw, the show was one more building block in the promoter’s effort to expand his territory and book more blues-rock and legacy acts into Kenan Auditorium, which has a long history as a concert venue but with less consistency compared with typical UNCW Arts programming. Over the next six months, Maxx Music has Judy Collins (June 9), Beatles tribute band The Fab Four (July 1), Eric Johnson (Sept. 8) and The Steeldrivers (Oct. 21) scheduled for Kenan.

The theater opened in 1970, and its foyer is small and tight, which resulted in gridlock Saturday night between acts as patrons crowded around concessions and merchandise tables while others tried to squeeze their way through to reach the restrooms along the sides of the entry space. It’s not an ideal layout for a contemporary rock concert and school officials should find a way to reconfigure traffic flow for future shows to avoid the congestion.

In addition, for Little Feat, a seated show, dozens of people crowded the aisles in dancing mode, which kept staff busy clearing space for folks headed to the restrooms and concessions, while others approached the stage to take cell photos, blocking the view of those paying the highest ticket price for the best seats. 

Yeah, it’s nothing new, but at a small venue in a college setting, it can be a little tricky with enforcement. Officials must figure out a happy medium,  contending with the mix of baby boomers down to Gen Z and millennials that want to have a good time without infringing on others’ enjoyment of the show.

It’s one more ‘feat’ to achieve.