Feat Fanatics -- those Washington die-hards who have never forgiven the rest of the world for not taking Little Feat to their hearts the way they did -- have cause to rejoice. Almost a decade after their last album, their last tour and the death of founder Lowell George, Little Feat are back with a new record, a new tour and a new lead singer.

This is the age of reunions -- everyone from the Rascals and the Doobie Brothers to Tony Orlando and Dawn -- but few bands carry such weight as the reunited Feat. In the early '70s, they provoked and sustained the kind of adulation afforded only one other artist in this area: Bruce Springsteen. Their sound -- Americana-rock built on fat bluesy back beats and sly syncopations, sensuous slide guitar and rollicking piano -- led both the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to call Little Feat their favorite rock 'n' roll band. People magazine called them "America's best unknown band," and they were always critical darlings.

But even the flashiest of encomiums couldn't raise them beyond cult status outside the Beltway and their eight albums never sold in great numbers -- except in Washington, where they could sell out a Capital Centre but more often chose to spend four or five nights at the Warner, giving two raucous shows a night.

The stubborn loyalty of the Feat Fanatics had been bred by constant air play (on WHFS in particular) and concerts, just as band's continued existence was fueled by Washington's devotion. In the low times -- and there would be many -- Little Feat would come here -- to play, to rest, to record both their "Waiting for Columbus" live album, done at Lisner Auditorium, and their "Feats Don't Fail Me Now." Washington was not just a stronghold for this L.A.-based group, but a fortress of fervor, yet Little Feat could never translate that affection and acclaim to national stardom or commercial success.

They were the great American band -- guitarist Paul Barrere, pianist Billy Payne, bassist Kenny Gradney, drummer Ritchie Hayward, conga player Sam Clayton. And then there was Lowell George, who'd founded the group when Frank Zappa kicked him out of the Mothers of Invention so he'd have to start his own group. Brilliant, moody, obsessive, insecure, George was the band's heart and tortured soul, one of rock's most impassioned singers and expressive slide guitarists.

When George died of a heroin overdose in an Arlington motel room in June 1979 -- he'd just played one of his first solo concerts in support of his first solo album -- it seemed to mark the end not only of his life, but the band's. The last few years had been hard, and George had withdrawn within the band, letting others carry more of the creative and production weight. Still, when a retrospective album came out in 1981, Bill Payne told RollingStone that "whatever doors were open to any more Little Feat albums are closed. Little Feat just does not exist without Lowell."

Not surprisingly, Payne has a slightly different take on things now.

"We have to answer that burning question in people's minds: What is this thing like without Lowell George?" he says. "For people who just can't live without Lowell in Little Feat, it's obviously not going to work for them. Fine, they've got the albums they can listen to and God bless 'em.

"But from the standpoint of other people ... well, toward the end, we couldn't do it with Lowell and we couldn't do it without him."

Payne and the other members of Little Feat, including frequent guest guitarist (and now full member) Fred Tackett and new singer Craig Fuller (founder and lead singer of Pure Prairie League and American Flyer), were at Merriweather Post Pavilion recently, opening for old pal Jimmy Buffett. Though they only had 50 minutes to prove it, it was apparent that they'd lost very little since their last official performance on New Year's Eve, 1978. Sinewy rhythms, stinging guitar, rolling piano, slippery vocals -- the music was coming home. Even Fuller's singing, while not a copy, had haunting echoes of Lowell George.

This week, Little Feat released its first studio record in almost 10 years, "Let It Roll," and it's slowly building toward an October stand at the Warner -- three or four nights, per tradition. (Tickets go on sale today.) The first single, "Hate to Lose Your Lovin'," is classic Feat, the perfect bridge between the band's history and its future. Ironically, it was written soon after George's death by Barrere and Fuller -- eight years before Fuller joined the band.

"We'd almost started a band {with Fuller} 10 years ago when he was with songwriter Eric Kaz," Barrere recalls. "We were in the middle of making 'Down on the Farm' and thinking about another band because we were up to here with the life style, Lowell's in particular."

It was around this time that George was having serious problems with alcohol and drug abuse, and some band members were in danger of following their leader.

"Things were amiss everywhere in everybody's life, mine included," Barrere says. "Lowell tended to be a stick-in-the-mud at times. He had great ideas, but while our management and the band would want to go out and tour and work, work, work, Lowell would go 'aaaaaghh!' Eventually that was the cause of all our arguments and what have you.

"I didn't know what was going to happen after Lowell came back from his solo tour {in 1979}. There was talk that he wanted to get the band back together, finish the album and go back on the road, 'do it again for the Gipper, guys.' Then he went and died and it was completely over the edge, completely nuts. Getting this back together was probably the furthest thing from my mind at that point."

The Fuller-Kaz Band opened 40 shows on the last Little Feat tour, and George had talked with Fuller about producing a solo album (as George had done for Jackson Browne), but nothing had come of it. And Fuller had gone through his own pop trials: He'd left Pure Prairie League right before his song "Amy" became a huge hit, spent some time in jail, and done alternative service in a hospital as a conscientious objector during the tail end of the war in Vietnam, then gave the music business another shot with American Flyer and the band with Kaz.

When Bill Payne called him in Cincinnati last year, Fuller says, "I was retired. I'd pretty much lost interest when people started having purple hair and strange bones in their noses. I knew I couldn't really be a part of that. There was still an element of music that wasn't that, but it was a real small space."

That Payne called at all was surprising. "I never wanted to put this band back together," Payne says. "I felt no matter what the success ratio was, we'd done what we were supposed to do and, hey, it was great."

The Return of Little Feat began, he says, with an informal jam in Los Angeles. "We didn't have the jam session in order to put the band back together, we were all just in town at the same time. We'd tried three years before with some other people showing up and it wasn't quite happening, so we decided if we ever do it again, let's just have the five guys and leave it at that. So we did."

Richie Hayward had been drumming with Robert Plant and Joan Armatrading, among others. Kenny Gradney had played with Bobby Weir and the Midnighters and Mick Fleetwood's Zoo. Sam Clayton had been with Buffett for six years, while Barrere had done several solo albums and worked in Little Feat-ish bands like Chicken Legs (mostly with Washington musicians) and the Bluesbusters.

"We couldn't remember any of the songs," Payne says with a laugh. "It was like singing Christmas carols. But Ritchie Hayward was playing better than ever, everyone had cleaned up their act, everybody was healthy. When Paul and I were driving back to his house, I said, 'I don't really know what to make of this, but I sure enjoyed it tonight. If there's a way to do it ...' The more I thought about it, I really missed this stuff. The energy of it is what surprised me. I'd been working with James Taylor and Bob Seger, and I didn't realize how much I got a chance to stretch out {with Little Feat}."

Adds Barrere: "I had a great time at that jam session and driving home we realized all the guys were still around. You know, every time they went on stage with someone else, somebody'd be out there yelling 'Feat! Feat! Feat!' "

At this point, Payne turned to another old friend: Peter Asher, who manages Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, agreed to do the same for a reconstituted Little Feat. "Now we needed a lead singer and that would be the crux of whether we'd do it or not, outside of having to write some very good material."

There was talk about enlisting Bonnie Raitt, yet another longtime pal and frequent concert coconspirator. Also Robert Palmer, a big Feat fan whom George had at one time produced (though that probably would have been a disaster, not just from the fashion angle, but because Palmer is English and the Feat are quintessentially American).

Enter Fuller.

"I'm sure they had some misgivings, which nobody voiced at the time," he says. But he shared with the Feat a musical background that had been obscured by his country-rock success. "We all come from the same place -- we all played the same John Mayall and Eric Clapton records, we all listened to the same music when we were younger," he explains. "By the time I received any notoriety I wasn't connected with it at all -- but I had done it and I knew I could do it."

"He was the dark horse," Payne admits. "We knew he could sing 'Willin',' 'Roll 'em Easy' and 'Long Distance Love,' the more subdued tunes we have. I didn't know about 'Rock and Roll Doctor' and 'Fat Man in the Bathtub,' so we asked him to learn them."

Which Fuller did well enough to impress the rest of the band at a rehearsal. "The guys had to pick me off the floor," Payne recalls. "You can't replace Lowell George, there's no way in hell we would ever try. The phrasing that Craig puts on 'Rock and Roll Doctor' and 'Fat Man' is faithful to the way Lowell would do it and he sounds frighteningly like Lowell, but he also sounds like himself."

Still, Fuller is clearly trying to avoid stepping into Lowell George's shoes, and not just because they were a Size 8 (hence the group's name).

"I'm too distinctive a singer to be that much of an echo," Fuller insists. "I loved the way Lowell sang and we really do have similar voices. He was wonderful. But I knew better than anybody, being a songwriter, that we needed to write some hit songs. Just playing the old stuff was not going to do it ... And we had to be careful not to just write old-sounding songs."

In fact, the new album both echoes the past and advances it, adding a little more country-rock to the mix. "Hate to Lose Your Lovin' " is classic Feat, right down to Billy Payne's boisterous piano. The title cut recalls "Teenage Nervous Breakdown," while "One Clear Moment" and "Long Time Till I Get Over You" are straight-ahead rockers with a twist. "Cajun Girl" has a zydeco flavor.

"Let It Roll" was produced by Payne and George Massenburg, who engineered all the Feat albums before he started producing them with George. And artist Neon Park has come up with another "Sailin' Shoes" cover. "It's a little psychedelic, to tell you the truth," Payne chuckles.

The wistful "Hangin' On to the Good Times," one of the best songs on the album, deals with George and the band's history. "We said, 'Let's do one about ourselves,' " Payne recalls. "The image of the smiling face pressed against the windowpane -- that's something that Lowell would do. And 'Juanita's a little older now, Spotcheck Billy looks just the same ...' Stuff that was emotional but not maudlin and works as a piece. People tear up a little when they recognize certain things."

There was always a feeling Little Feat was a foot or two ahead of its time. In many ways, Payne's piano set the stage for Bruce Hornsby's success, and the Feat's melodic embrace of assorted American music styles, from Cajun bayou boogie to galloping blues, seems less unusual today. Maybe this time, the commercial breakthrough will come.

"I feel we're every bit as good as we've ever been at our hottest 10 years ago," says Payne, "plus we sound better because the technology is better, so we have a lot going for us."

Maybe the timing is right for Feat egos, as well. In the old days, Paul Barrere was often perceived as second fiddle to Lowell George, and his contributions as a writer and performer -- like Payne's -- were often overlooked.

"In retrospect I needed these nine years to mature, to not only grow with my chops on the guitar but my chops vocally and my chops personally," Barrere says. "In my personal life, I was about this far behind Lowell, and if I didn't watch it, I was going to the same place he was. But you couldn't have told me that at the time, because I was wild and crazy and ready to go -- let's do it.

"But I didn't want to do it with Little Feat ... So I did two solo albums, which entered the charts at No. 400 with an anchor and slowly faded away ..."

When it was time for Little Feat to fade back in, there was little doubt it would do so with Warner Bros., says Payne. "I called up {label head} Lenny Waronker and asked him to listen to our demo in the same light he'd listened to Lowell and me 17 years ago when we'd walked into his office, sat at his upright piano with Lowell on acoustic guitar and done eight songs."

This time around, Warner signed the band on the basis of a three-song cassette "with no bass, a drum machine -- Ritchie and Kenny were on the road with Warren Zevon -- a vocal mike moving in and out because there was no limiter or compressor on it ... This was done on an absurd level considering what it takes to get a deal these days."

The revitalized band was unveiled at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on a river boat. "After 10 years, we were nervous," Payne admits. "But by the second show we were pretty damn tight. And there were young people in the audience who had no idea who Lowell was or who we were and yet they were singing the lyrics along with the older fans, who were out there with huge smiles on their faces ..."

Maybe the young ones had heard the Feat on classic rock stations, or through parents, or older brothers and sisters. "Some couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 when it started, and 10 or 11 at the end of it," Payne adds.

Says Paul Barrere: "Everybody's older now -- I just turned 40 -- and obviously we can't carry on like we used to when we were 30. I think that had a lot to do with our problems: People just didn't feel very well. The morning after the night before was always a gruesome sight and then to have to deal with five or six other guys ..."

Now it's the morning after the mourning after.

"We've got such a great shot at making this thing work and last this time that it's gotta be worth the effort," Barrere concludes.

New Feats, don't fail me now.