When Leo Met Leo: A Conversation with Leo Nocentelli, Page McConnell and George Porter Jr.
Photo by Dino Perrucci
“People always say, ‘Oh, Phish is so heavily influenced by the Dead’ or some say The Allman Brothers or Zappa,” Phish keyboardist Page McConnell says, while sitting backstage at New York’s BB King Blues Club. “But I think the Meters are as important as any of those bands to the way we play. And when we’re playing the way we like to play, I’m feeling that same kind of energy and connection and playing sparsely and really getting the tightest grooves we can with the least amount of effort.”
He’s alongside founding Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli and bassist George Porter, Jr. a few hours before their first of two nights at the intimate Times Square venue. Not only is it Halloween, but it’s also just two days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and much of the city is still without power. McConnell’s children are running around the venue’s empty room dressed in their Halloween costumes, and founding Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste is soundchecking onstage.
Ever since he recorded a track for the New Orleans benefit album Get You a Healin with Porter, Meters keyboardist Art Neville, latter day Meters drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. and other Big Easy musicians in 1998, McConnell has slowly become part of the extended Meters family. From 2001-2004, Batiste played in McConnell’s electro-funk trio Vida Blue, and in 2008, the Phish keyboardist toured with Batiste, Porter and Funky Meters guitarist Brian Stoltz as a reconfigured version of their PBS band. In between those tours, McConnell performed a variety of New Orleans-style jam sessions with the musicians and even appeared on a PBS live album recorded in 2007. But, as he tells Jambands.com, his connection to the Meters predates his first collaboration with the group by more than a decade. During a brief tour with the New Orleans legends, billed as The Meter Men, McConnell, Nocentelli and Porter discussed their new friendship and shared musical history.
Let’s start by talking about how this four-night run came to be. How did this incarnation of The Meter Men come about and how did Page first get involved?
Leo: We did the Jazz Fest with all four of us the year before this started. Quint Davis, who was the booker for the Jazz Fest, asked us if George, Zig and I wanted to do it just with us three. He asked us to do it as a trio actually, without a keyboard or anything. We said yes and we had to come up with a name. So there were several different names that came up. We decided we didn’t want to use [The Meters] because it wasn’t The Meters. The guy that came up with the name The Meter Men was Quint Davis. That’s how that came about, around four years ago at Jazz Fest.
After that, we did about two shows and everybody got busy. We never got the chance to really revisit that concept of doing a trio because it was meant to be a trio. Last year, when we found out that Art [Neville] had taken a hiatus from The Meters, then it clicked. Everyone still wanted to use Leo, George and Zig, so it clicked in everybody’s head to say, “Well, maybe we should try to keep this going.” We were actually talking about doing a recording as the Meters and Art didn’t want to be involved in that and so we just said, “Look, let’s us three do it.” We decided to carry on with it through recording. And then, we started getting some interest in just the opportunity. We didn’t want to disregard it so we took a shot and said, “Let’s do this trio and we can have guest keyboardists for the recording aspect.” There’s a list of people; Herbie Hancock, JoJo [Hermann] from Widespread Panic, Booker T., Kyle [Hollingsworth] from String Cheese Incident, and lo and behold, Mr. Page McConnell.
So we asked Page to do it with us and he graciously—thank God he did—said, “Yeah man, I wanna do it.” I play B.B. Kings all the time so we booked a couple of nights here, the 31st and 1st, and it extended to some promoters and they said [Washington], D.C. so we decided to do D.C. And then some people asked us in Boston. So it was four days altogether. The first day we did was last night, which was extremely successful. It was sold out and the music was just on the one. And there’s another date that’s in the latter part of December. I don’t know if it’s all put together yet but Kathy [Webster], Zig’s wife, was the one that got the gig. But I got these four dates here together. My first choice [for a keyboardist] was Page.
Page, you’ve had a connection to the Meters for quite some time now. What is the first time you actually met Leo and were part of a Meters project? Was it when you recorded as the Gyptians for the New Orleans benefit album in 1998?
Page: Yes. The first thing I did was that benefit for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which is something that my dad started down in New Orleans. I got together with one of the women who helped start it down there along with [Tulane] University. We did a track; it was George and Art and myself and Mike Gordon and then Russell and a guy named Phil Simmons, who played percussion with The Headhunters. It was the six of us: two basses, two keyboards and two percussionists. We did a track and it was really fun. It came out great and we got to record up at the old Masonic temple up there in New Orleans. That was I think ‘98 and then soon after that, I got the idea to put a band together with Russell and Oteil [Burbridge] and so we put together Vida Blue. We did that for a couple of years and then I played some other gigs with Russell down in New Orleans. PBS came to play in Burlington and I sat in with them. We did about four shows out on the road with them. I also played Jazz Fest with them a couple of years ago. I didn’t meet Leo for the first time before three or four days ago. That was the first time we’d ever met. We’d talked on the phone and we’re best friends now. [Laughs.]
Leo: We’ve known of each other, we knew about the group but it’s not all the time that you actually meet ‘em.
Page: I’ve been a huge fan of the Meters since way before I’ve gotten to play with any of these guys. I’ve been listening to the music and enjoying it and it’s had a pretty big impression on me. And to be sitting in the seat that Art held for so many years, I feel like I’ve learned so much about playing the organ from just listening to how he soloed and his use of melody and the things he was able to do. It was really pretty important to the way I play. When I got this opportunity, I was excited about it.