I mentioned WHFS when I wrote about Robyn Hitchcock’s cover of “More Than This”, and here is a recording from their 70s incarnation, a free-form DJs paradise, with a loose mandate to play anything you wanted that wasn’t a hit. Before becoming the place to hear British imports and American indie rock it was the place to hear deep cut Zappa, Ramones, and Emmylou Harris. So it seems natural to have Lowell George of Little Feat stop by one March day with a handful of friends—including Linda Ronstadt—and play a laid back set from which this recording was taken.
“Willin’” is by any measure one of Lowell’s signature tunes, appearing in two different versions on Little Feat’s first two albums, and in 1974 Linda Ronstadt recorded a version that would appear on her breakthrough album, Heart Like A Wheel. But here, removed from any studio anxiety, removed from playing in front of an audience beyond a handful of friends and folks in the studio, the song finds its center. Lowell George here slouches toward infinity, his almost comically tongue-in-cheek spoken opening verse one of the most audible winks I’ve ever heard. He resists the urge to ramp up the bridge and chorus; the tempo stays close to constant, unlike both Little Feat versions and Ronstadt’s then recent recording. This is a waltz—though that’s a little harder to hear without the delineating drums—and the way Linda comes in on harmonies is a dance all its own.
Ronstadt does not get enough credit for her ability to compliment and elevate her fellow performers. Whether singing backing vocals with the likes of Neil Young, Paul Williams, Gram Parsons, Maria Muldaur and many others, or working with her own bands and studio musicians, she consistently improved and highlighted the work of her collaborators. And on this recording of “Willin’” it is as easy to hear as anywhere in her vast catalog; the moment she chimes in on the word “Tucson” her bright clear voice fills a void you didn’t know existed in the overall sonic palette. When that fine clear high opens up on the a cappella chorus, it’s like sunlight beams down on the weary voiced Lowell George. For two and a half minutes Linda Ronstadt is Dallas Alice, a bright shining light in the darkness.