The Meters: Retrospective & Prospective
Many people before me have commented on the similarities between music fans and sports fans. In that vein, I would suggest that every jamband fan has a band that they "root for." Most of the time this applies to hometown bands, as those of us who are lucky enough to live in towns with a thriving local scene are constantly championing some local sensation and wondering why they don’t hit it nationally. To pick a local example from here in Atlanta where I currently live, guitarist Barry Richman is somebody I have been trying to get across to people for a while.
However, it doesn’t have to be a local band. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be your favorite band. Phish, for example, has long since reached a level of success that makes rooting for them seem silly. No, that kind of relationship only seems to happen with a band that is SO good, but doesn’t get the respect that you as a fan feel they deserve. At that point it goes beyond merely going to shows or buying albums. You find yourself saying "Man, you really need to check these guys out" to your friends and making copies of your bootlegs to spread the wealth, because the only thing better than how that band makes you feel is sharing that feeling with others.
For me, that band is the funky Meters. Many people are familiar with The Meters through such songs as Iko Iko and Hey Pocky Way, both of which were played by the Grateful Dead. However, most of these folks are sadly unaware that a lineal descendent of the original Kings of New Orleans Funk is still rocking clubs and theaters all over the country on a regular basis.
Over the past two years, the funky Meters have been as hot as any touring band in the nation, in my opinion. Their shows, usually one long, intense set that can exceed three hours in length, meld the raw booty-shaking bounce of P-Funk with the improvisational interplay of bands like Phish and the Dead. Those of you who really enjoy seeing a TIGHT live band must see the funky Meters to truly appreciate what musical telepathy is all about. Their excellent listening skills and mutual respect help create an interlocking groove where all four members hold their own space while constantly relating to each other. Imagine my surprise when I first discovered that such music existed
THE DEFLOWERING OF A FUNK VIRGIN
I was a sophomore at Tulane University in the fall of 1988. Like most 18-year-olds, I was convinced that I knew everything, so I was genuinely surprised when I heard my friend Dave singing some nonsense scat words that I didn’t recognize. "Book-a-ch-uh, book-a-ch-ah? What the hell is that?," I asked, befuddled. Dave just gave me a look and said "Man, you havent heard The Meters?"
In my shame, I admitted that I was unaware of the wellspring of funk. Dave took me under his wing, and in a matter of weeks I was obsessed with this hypnotically rhythmic music. Soon after the word came down: Three of the original four members of The Meters would be jamming together with local drummer Russell Batiste, who would take the spot of legendary drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, at a club called Jimmy’s.
There are some things in this world that nothing can prepare you for, and that night at Jimmy’s was one of them. Guitarist Leo Nocentelli had the fastest right hand I had ever seen, firing out machine gun licks that dazzled the ear and eye alike. Art Neville, the scion of the Neville clan, had his trademark funky organ sound and soulful vocals going strong.
But the rhythm section is what got me. Drummer Russsell Batiste, not much older than me at the time, was a dynamo, playing with power and fury while always staying in the pocket. As for bassist George Porter well, I don’t think my friends and I knew that such great things were possible on the bass guitar. My friend Eric, no slouch as a guitarist, turned to me during one of George’s bass solos and said with an air of resignation "He’s faster on bass than I’ll ever be on guitar!"
Not that technical precision was the point, far from it. I walked away from that show blown wide open by the pure SOUL that was at the heart of this newfound music. Besides that, I was awed at the sense of architecture in the music, a never-failing ability to put the right sound in the right place at the right time. I was hooked.
Once I finally recovered from that first mind-blowing, eye-opening, booty-shaking funk initiation, I found that a door had been opened to a whole universe of great music that I never knew existed. I was turned on to the Radiators, the Neville Brothers and other local acts, and was astounded by the concentration of talent in New Orleans. As I said before, though, it wasnt talent or technical skill that really captured my imagination, although Crescent City musicians had plenty of both. No, it was how much FUN everybody was having, both the audience and the musicians alike. There was a kind of connection between the audience, the music, and the musicians that other forms of music had abandoned in favor of empty spectacle and big hair. (This was 1988, keep in mind.) For the first time, I saw music as a natural force, like the wind or the rain or the tides, rather than as a discipline to be mastered. It is no overstatement to say that this realization began a transformation in consciousness that is ongoing in me to this day.
For the next few years, I caught every Meters show I could. Even in a music scene as rich and diverse as New Orleans, they stood out as the cream of the crop, and I was a devoted fan. When I graduated and returned to Georgia, I still saw the band occasionally on trips for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest to get my Recommended Yearly Allowance of funk, but much to my frustration, they never came to Atlanta.
Then one day I heard news that Leo Nocentelli, one of the founding fathers of funk guitar, had left the band in a huff over some sort of contract dispute that revived ugly memories of the band’s original breakup in 1978. Truth be told, I had started to find Leos solos a little repetitive, if technically impressive. Even so, Leo’s unique style could hardly be duplicated, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel when I heard that the band would proceed with a new guitarist under the name the funky Meters.
That new guitarist would turn out to be Brian Stoltz, a seasoned pro who played on Bob Dylans Oh Mercy and was a member of the Neville Brothers for many years, but not before some controversy. George Porter was pulling for Brint Anderson, the guitarist in his solo band Runnin Pardners, to fill the gig and wasnt entirely happy when Art and Russell voted Brian in instead.
George complained that I came to the audition unprepared, says Stoltz. He was expecting to hear note for note what was on a live tape, instead of listening to what I was doing at the time. If the job required being a Leo clone as opposed to being a creative member of the band, I was not interested.
George admits that he was not thrilled at first, and continues to maintain that Brint Anderson was more prepared. Most good or great players, they think that our music is simple, so simple that they can walk right in and play it, Porter explains. I knew very little of Brians playing, I dont think I saw the Brothers play a lot when Brian was in the band. That alone was not enough to say yes, although I was outvoted. One thing George emphasizes is that the band was not trying to replace Leo. There was no replacing Leo, he says, We were trying to reinvent the music. They (Stoltz and Anderson) were both a little weak in the rhythm department, but both brought something else to the band.
I did have reservations at first, says Stoltz, because it was a bit difficult for me, not being completely accepted by everyone. At first, Stoltz kept an ear open for a possible gig playing with Dylan, but when that call finally came, the funky Meters were doing well enough for Stoltz to turn it down. By this time, he had started playing some of his own material with the band. I just started playing them at the gig, just like Art goes into some old song he grew up listening to. There is no rehearsal. In fact, I havent had a rehearsal with this band yet!
I asked George when he warmed up to Brian. The warming-up process started when I saw that he had something to bring to the table, George says. By the time we started to play, Brian had done more homework and was ready to do battle. I was very pleased.
The first thing I noticed when I saw the new band, rechristened the funky Meters out of respect for Leo, was Brian Stoltzs tone. Big, bold, and Hendrixy, it was the perfect vehicle for fire-breathing solos. However, as George had predicted, he seemed to have a harder time breathing life into the choppy rhythm lines that were Leos trademark. It was definitely a different band, but still a damn good one, and they improved rapidly once Stoltz had established himself.
Along with thousands of others, I will always remember Jazz Fest 1996 as a watershed moment for the funky Meters. They played on the main stage right after Phishs notorious first, last, and only festival appearance, and a lot of Phish-heads got blown away by the funk that day. A set-closing version of Voodoo Child was especially monstrous, and soothed my Hendrix-loving heart. With Art, George and Russell locked into a ferocious groove, Brian really got a chance to let his freak flag fly, ending the days festivities with a mind-liquefying surge of feedback that still stands as one of the most powerful things Ive ever heard. I felt like he had finally rendered the inevitable Leo comparisons moot by jamming so hard that from now on, he would have to be taken on his own terms.
Flash forward to January 1999 at the Roxy Theater in Atlanta. After years of having to go to New Orleans to get my funk prescription filled, the funky Meters were finally coming to one of Atlantas best venues, and I was more than a little bit excited.
To me, that show was the point when the funky Meters reached the next level. From a ripping version of Africa to a Just Kissed My Baby that pushed the envelope of funkiness to a truly awe-inspiring Third Stone From The Sun, I was blown away from start to finish. Telepathic segues, great ensemble playing, inspired solos, it was all there. Most of all, there were truly spontaneous moments of pure improvisation. All jam-oriented music aims for this elusive goal, but few are fearless enough to really get there.
When I asked George Porter if he ever gets lost in the middle of a jam, his telling response was Yes we do, and thats when the fun starts. He goes on to say that when we are having fun, we play anything. A simple question about funk music shows just how seriously George takes the notion of musical freedom. I can do without all labels. First and foremost I am a musician and I can and will play, or give it my best shot, any music on the planet. That is, if I like it! (smiles)
Which is indicative of the optimistic, adventurous vibe that makes George Porter Jr. one of my favorite musicians. The contagious joy that George radiates on stage is reason enough to go see the funky Meters perform. Combine it with Russell Batistes lethally syncopated drumming, Brian Stoltzs soaring guitar, and Art Nevilles soul, melodicism, and virtually endless musical vocabulary, and you have one of the best bands around.
Which is why some people got worried when the original Meters lineup played a one-time-only show at the Warfield in San Francisco. George, Art, Leo, and original drummer Zigaboo Modeliste would once again share the stage for the first time in years. This provoked much discussion. What if the original four enjoyed jamming together so much that they got back together? Those of us who had gotten used to the unique sound of the funky Meters would hate to see the band shut down just as they were hitting their stride, while hardcore fans of the original lineup would do anything to get the original band back together.
Well, I dont think we have much to worry about. While George Porter says, I never say never when asked about the possibility of another reunion, he had an interesting answer to this question: What was it like to play in the reunion show at the Warfield? Some things never change. George also wanted to say, Just for the record, The Meters @ The Warfield was a different band.
Following the reunion show, the funky Meters played a series of dates opening for the Dave Matthews Band that exposed them to thousands of new fans. Besides just getting the band the gig, Matthews himself joined the band at one show for the old New Orleans classic Iko Iko. I have never been much of a Dave Matthews fan, but at least he knows good music when he hears it.
For years, I have been telling people how good the funky Meters are, and soon I will finally be able to prove it. The funky Meters recently played two sold-out shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and the band plans to release a live album from them. Besides Meters classics and wide-ranging covers, the disc will showcase some excellent new material that the band has been playing live.
Two Funkys is a great instrumental jam in the fine Meters tradition, with a simple but effective stop/start arrangement, and I have seen many fantastic versions of it over the past few years. This encore version is supposed to have been a showstopper, and I cant wait to hear it. I have enjoyed Brian Stoltzs songs like Seven Desires for years now, and they will hopefully appear on the new disc as well. Who knows, perhaps this album will give the funky Meters the recognition they finally deserve.
Which can, of course, be a bittersweet thing. I know many a Phish fan who still carries a chip on their shoulder over the negative impact of that bands staggering success. Part of me would love to continue seeing the funky Meters in cozy, intimate venues, but when I think of how much their music has enriched my life, that just seems greedy. This music is too good to keep to myself, and I encourage you all to check it out and funkify your life!