When Scott Sharrard showed up for his first gig as the temporary replacement for ailing Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere in 2019, the key word was “temporary.” But temporary immediately became something much more permanent.
“Paul passed away the day of the show, before the show,” Sharrard says.
While the loss of Barrere, a founding member, has created a void that won’t ever be filled, with Sharrard, the long-running and influential boogie rock band has a lifelong superfan in its ranks who seems to have been born for the role. (Little Feat will begin its By Request tour Thursday, Nov. 11, at The Capitol Theatre.)
Sharrard says when when he was about 12 years old, “I got a four-track, a drum kit and a bass and recreated ‘Waiting for Columbus’ track for track. I learned every part of the album.” Sharrard will have the opportunity to perform the seminal 1978 live album outside of the confines of his childhood bedroom next spring when the band embarks on a tour to celebrate its 45th anniversary.
Sharrard, whose high-profile credits include a run as musical director in Gregg Allman’s Band and as a member of Levon Helm’s group, says when he first heard Little Feat, it brought together “under one roof” the various types of music he had been listening to. And as a professional, the band has always served as a touchstone for him.
“One of the main tenets of any project I’ve been involved in, any solo project I ever do, Little Feat is one of the first names out of my mouth when I have to reference a sonic palette,” he says. “The way Little Feat used to mix genres and feels, that’s the whole DNA of how I wanted to make and arrange music since I was a child.”
The California band started after guitarist and vocalist Lowell George was fired from Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention in 1969. George teamed up with keyboardist Bill Payne, and the classic lineup coalesced in 1972: George, Payne, Barrere, Kenny Gradney on bass, Ritchie Hayward on drums and Sam Clayton on percussion and vocals. Catchy, New Orleans-flavored songs like “Willin’,” “Dixie Chicken” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” punctuated Little Feat’s arrival, but George died in 1979, and the band stopped before it reformed in 1987.
Payne, Gradney and Clayton are still in the band, as is Fred Tackett (guitar, vocals, mandolin, trumpet), who’s been in the group since 1987. The newest members are Sharrard and drummer Tony Leone, who joined in 2020. Payne, who had also been a touring member with The Doobie Brothers since 2015, announced last week that he had wrapped up his time with the Doobies and is fully focused on Little Feat.
For Sharrard, Barrere’s passing was eerily familiar.
“I had played with Levon on his last show, and Gregg Allman’s last show was in Atlanta, Georgia, on the anniversary of Duane Allman’s death,” he says. “It’s an unusual position, but it keeps happening to me.”
Because of the COVID pandemic, Sharrard has only played seven shows with Little Feat so far, but he already feels the seeds of the deep connections he had formed with Helm and Allman, with whom he co-wrote the Grammy-nominated 2017 song “My Only True Friend” from Allman’s final album, the critically acclaimed “Southern Blood.”
“Well, I mean it’s incalculable,” Sharrard says when asked about the value of playing with his heroes, many of them 30 or more years his senior. “The immense amount of spiritual wisdom I’ve had the good fortune of being in the presence of, how much I’m able to digest and express, it’s been an astonishing privilege. When I was a teenager, I used to play with Hubert Sumlin in bars. Hubert taught me to finger pick in a bar. I used to go play and see Luther Allison. … My father was a professional musician most of his life. The Mothers of Invention used to crash at their house. Buddy Miles used to come over to my parents’ house when I was a kid and raid the fridge.”
Sharrard released a new solo album, “Rustbelt,” in September, and before the Little Feat tour that launches this week, he played several concerts to promote the release, including at Levon Helm Studios (Helm’s famed barn venue) in Woodstock and Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I called it ‘Rustbelt,’ because this really is about after six albums, this is really about me coming into my own and telling the deepest stories of my life through song …,” says Sharrard, who recorded the album with his road band and guests including Amy Helm and Payne. “People ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I was born in Ann Arbor, raised in Dearborn and Detroit, then Pennsylvania and Milwaukee.”
Sharrard, who has been living in New York City for 20 years, included on the album a deeply personal song called “Michigan Sunset,” which he wrote about Scott Smith, the singer in his dad’s band. Sharrard says Smith was a medic in the Vietnam War who refused to carry a weapon and was killed. Sharrard was named after him.
The album, Sharrard says, “is very heavily influenced by people like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon and Tony Joe White when it came to the compositional side of this record, and I really wanted to highlight the lyrical ideas.”
Photo by Danny Clinch