George Porter Jr. Still Holds It Down With Gusto
George Porter Jr. first made his name playing in the Meters, but, over the past forty years, the bassist has become synonymous with New Orleans music in general. In addition to the legendary group he helped define in the 60s and 70s, Porter currently divides his time himself between a number of high-profile Big Easy ensembles, ranging from the slim, funk-trio PBS, to the expansive, all-star big band the New Orleans Social Club to the all-improv trio work he conducts with Johnny Vidacovich. Along the way, Porter has also clocked in time with a number of the jam-scene’s most renowned names, including Gov’t Mule, Galactic and, recently, Steve Kimock. Last fall, he even played onstage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at New Orleans’ annual Voodoo Festival.
In the weeks leading up to JazzFest 2007, Porter spent time with Jambands.com discussing the future of his new band the Runnin’ Pardners, the status of his old band the Meters, and his secret to making it through a festival without a hangover.
MG- For many years you simultaneously played in two bands with Brian Stoltz and Russell Batiste Jr : PBS and the funky Meters. How do you approach these projects differently?
GP- Well, both groups are absolutely different bands musically. The funky Meters tend to lean more towards original Meters material, only with the different edge Brian [Stoltz] brought to the band. He just recently left the band and, at this point, we haven’t made a final decision on who the new guitar player is going to be. Art’s son Ian Neville has been playing with us and that has been going really well, but nothing is final. Ian did a great job playing with us in Boulder and we also had a guest saxophonist, Skerik, play with us which made for a very interesting evening. PBS, on the other hand, is a funk jamband that has real songs. Brian and Russell both bring a lot to the band: Brian writes some great songs and Russell is a great arranger. So, PBS is probably my favorite band right now.
MG- Along with drummer Johnny Vidacovich, you also host a weekly Trio gig at New Orleans’ Maple Leaf. How much of that residency is improvised on the spot?
GP- The Trio is pretty much a freeform, fusion, jam sort of thing. We don’t transcribe music, we just sort of start playing at 11 PM and end at 2:30 or 3 AM when the gig’s over [laughs]. There will occasionally be some sort of song formulas that people might recognize during the gig, but, for the most part, it is pretty freeform.
I am playing in two configurations at the Maple Leaf during JazzFest : one gig with the Runnin’ Pardners and one gig with the Trio. We are trying to do this east coast versus west coast thing. I am also going to put together this all-star band with Ivan Neville, me, and two drummers on May 4th.
MG- After years of inactivity, the original Meters toured a fair amount in 2005 and 2006. Do you have any plans to perform together at JazzFest?
GP- No not this year. We are taking this one off. I kind of think it is on hold for a little while. The other players have some other offers which have kind of taken them out of the loop. The Meters offers that did come through this year, like for Bonnaroo, conflicted with some individuals work schedules, so we ended up passing on Bonnaroo and some other festivals.
MG- What is the status of the Runnin’ Pardners disc you started working on in before Katrina?
GP- We have a brand, new studio disc which we are actually pressing this Wednesday or Thursday. It started off in 2004 with a keyboardist/producer named David Torkanowsky. Along with five different drummers, we just started recording tracks and we got Ms. Leslie Smith to come in and make some sense of my crazy lyrics musically [laughs]. That project was going until the hurricane disrupted our lives down here and I was way too busy to finish this project. About a year after the hurricane, I finally got back to this project in my own home studio. I replaced four of the tracks we originally recorded with new tracks we recorded down here at the Music Shed. My friends helped me finish it while I was on the road. Now we are going to go for it. We have been taken on by Madison House and together we are going to beat the bushes’ and hope someone pays attention [laughs].
MG- You’ve been playing with Steve Kimock a fair amount recently. How has that collaboration developed over the last few years?
GP- He joined PBS one night in Teaneck, NJ, and we played a few tunes up there. After that his agency called us again and wondered if we’d be interested in having Steve play some full gigs with us. We tried a few, but two got rained out. But, we got to hang and I played with Zero on the boat [Jam Cruise]. His son, John Morgan, is an incredible drummer. I kind of pushed that collaboration because I wanted to play with Johnny. I think he has great potential. Then this past weekend, in Colorado, we just happened to be in town the same time as Kimock and we had him play with PBS in Boulder.
MG- In general, what do you feel is the role of the bassist in a band?
GP- As a bass player that is very conscious of his surroundings, I truly believe the bass player’s role is to get on top of the drummer and make the pocket as strong as possible. So, that is my job. Even with the songs I write, I tend to only write the bottom half of the songs. Even when I use a rhythm or click track I am very aware of the syncopation that is going on very early on. I must say, when I use a click track to get the idea for a song down, I have on many occasions gone back and redone my bass lines once the drummer comes into the studio. I am always locking into a different rhythm.
I believe my greatest attributes are my ears and my ability to be a part of whatever unit I am in. I think I do that really well and could be a professional sideman. I can come and just do the job. I don’t have to be “George Porter. Jr.” all the time. Although, obviously, some parts of me stick out more than others [laughs]. But, I am a firm believer that no matter what organization I play with, I bring what is needed for the project. When I played with Matt Abts and Warren Haynes in Mule, man, it brought something to my playing which I had never used—-those 16th notes. I had never considered myself a speed player, but playing in Mule called for real consistency. I am a syncopated player and Gov’t Mule’s music requires playing on the beat all the time. So it was like, “well this is a new phrase in the Porter career!” But the kids voted me the best bass player during that period, so that was a great honor
MG- You are also part of the all-star group the New Orleans Social Club. Can you talk a bit about that project’s genesis?
GP- Leo Sacks had this dream long before the hurricane. But, as if happened, a lot of the players who he conceived for the band were in Austin, TX, after Katrina. We just had to bring in a few people like Leo Nocentelli and myself to complete the project. So, six weeks after the hurricane we recorded in Austin. But, unlike the other projects that came out after the hurricane, this wasn’t a hurricane recording. But the industry has that tendency to label you what they want. So, this record didn’t get its rightful place. There were some really great musicians on this disc and everyone checked their ego at the door. I was kind of, you know, the band leader or musical director, but this was a band of band leaders, but the project got lumped as a relief record.
MG- There has been some question as to who hosted the first New Orleans performance after Katrina. What is your take?
GP- The night the hurricane came the Maple Leaf had a brass band playing and the music never stopped. A night or two after the hurricane passed by the Maple Leaf bought a pair of generators and plugged one into the ice box to cool some drinks and another one into the stage and Walter “Wolfman” Washington played until the Nation Guard came and shut them down. I think they made that curfew law just for the Maple Leaf [laughs]. There were people there every night. So, the Maple Leaf was the first music club up and running.
MG- You are playing with no less than seven different bands at JazzFest this spring (The Runnin’ Pardners, the funky Meters, the New Orleans Social Club, The Trio, George Porter and Friends, PBS, and Snooks Eaglin). What is your secret to surviving the festival?
GP- I have been doing it now sober for the last 19 years, so it has been an experience [laughs]. So, it is a lot less painful now then 19 years ago when I was doing it a lot less, um, not sober [laughs]. Now I tend to wake up the next morning a bit more energized and I sleep more soundly. I go to sleep rather than pass out [laughs]! And, more than anything, I wake up with all my money in my pocket now [laughs].
I said I wasn’t going to do as many gigs this year, but I got all ten nights booked. On the weekends I am playing two shows most days and, from Monday-Wednesday, I am actually going to be recording during the days and gigging at night. The Voice of the Wetlands is recording the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday between the JazzFest weekends
MG- As the second post-hurricane JazzFest approaches, do you feel New Orleans is back on its feet?
GP- I’m still saddened by the fact that it is taking so long for things to happen. They have this program down here called The Road Home program. It is basically helping people rebuild their homes. My wife and I started rebuilding our home right away, but we worked out of my pocket—-out of the savings we had. Then, when the Road Home came through, we were real hopeful we would be reimbursed. But, what I came to find out was that the Road Home plan doesn’t cover Town Houses, so my home and the home I bought for my daughter and granddaughter, aren’t covered. They say that it might change, but right now there are no previsions for Town Houses. But a home is a home and it is kind of stupid to me. This is my homeso it is just the bureaucracy of it. It dehumanized the whole process of rebuilding. And, all the crap you have to go through to be eligible for this Road Home project has made a lot of people say “screw it,” I’m just going to stay where I am. The state government really ties the local government’s hands and by the time it gets down to use there is not much left
I am fortunate. We had a little money in the bank and, you know, I am a working, somewhat high-profile musician with a little bit of means. I am definitely not a rich person, but I am a working musician who has to work every week. But there are groups of musicians and everyday people working anyway they can. We have nurses working as waitresses just to make some money because there is some industries which ain’t back yet. So, I want to say that the city is absolutely doing better despite the bureaucracy. But it is coming back because certain individuals aren’t waiting for the government to give them the OK to do something.
Mike Greenhaus is the senior editor of Jambands.com and the staff editor of Relix Magazine. He is also the undisputed heavyweight typo champion of www.greenhauseffect.com