Forty years into a professional life as America's most versatile rock and blues keyboard player, Bill Payne is testing the waters as a solo performer. The Little Feat cofounder already has a personal creative outlet as an accomplished photographer, but musically, he'd always been a collaborator. Until now.
"I thought about it for a long time, to be honest," Payne explains over the phone from his Montana home north of Yellowstone National Park. "I just could not figure out how to do it. Do I go out there and play a lot of old Little Feat songs that the band doesn't play? What do I do?"
The result is "Tracing Footsteps: A Journal of Music, Photography and Tales of the Road," which stops off at Mill Valley's Sweetwater Music Hall next week, with Grateful Dead archivist and publicist Dennis McNally opening and facilitating a Q&A session with Payne and the audience.
Payne's answer began to emerge when he started writing songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, four of which appeared on Little Feat's most recent recording, Rooster Rag. Payne credits the success of that partnership to their shared visual approach. "His lyrics provide a real cinematic approach for me as a guy trying to come up with melodies and chords. So it's a good handshake."
With the band "on hiatus for a while" due to guitarist Paul Barrere's health, Payne says, the pieces seemed to fall into place. "Lo and behold, I was in possession of a lot of songs. I was also singing more the last few years with Little Feat, so my confidence in that area grew."
But he also wanted to share more than his music.
"I thought, why don't I share my photography, why don't I share stories from not only Little Feat and being a road warrior, [but] all the years of being in the studio and all the things that come [from] this curve of creativity I've been enjoying for the last . . . well, since I was five years old.
It was at that tender age, he recalls, that he first found musical inspiration in the vista from his family's Ventura home. "I lived up on a hill, I had a view of the Pacific Ocean, all the attendant weather patterns, and I would go from the big picture window and wander over the piano as a little kid and try to replicate what I just saw."
These days, as he's able to capture those visions explicitly on film as well as musically, Payne has finally found a way to combine it all, as he puts it, "under one tent."