James Brown may have invented funk, but the Meters perfected it. Originally the "house band" at New Orleans' Sea-Saint Studios, the group went on to record with Dr. John and Paul McCartney, tour with the Stones, and lay down a mix of buoyant melodies and sophisticated syncopation that has yet to be surpassed.
During a sold-out reunion show at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre back in 2000, the original group bassist George Porter, keyboardist Art Neville, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli burned through hits like "Cissy Strut," "Fire on the Bayou" and "Hey Pocky A-Way'' with definitive deep-in-the-pocket rhythms as well as an improvisational acumen only hinted at on their '60s and '70s recordings.
Today, Porter remains the most active of the four and plays, by his count, 250 to 275 gigs a year. Currently on a tour billed as "Galactic featuring George Porter of the Meters," he still leads two bands of his own, just finished a gospel record with jazz guitarist John Scofield, and has played bass with everyone from Tori Amos to David Byrne.
These days, Porter lives uptown in New Orleans' Carrollton neighborhood, where he plays a Thursday night trio gig at the local Maple Leaf Bar. He's also been active with Tab Benoit's Voice of the Wetlands project, which had the sad distinction of anticipating the disaster from which New Orleans has yet to recover. He still remembers driving home to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"I was up in the country, staying with my little cousin in Downsville, and I stuck the [Voice of the Wetlands] CD in the player," he recalls. "And man, I had to pull over, because I just broke out and started crying. I mean, it was like somebody beat the shit out of me. I was shaking and crying, because everything on that record happened to us."
Porter had 4 feet of water in his home, as did his sister, who lives next door. His mother had nine. Asked if everyone's dry now, Porter doesn't miss a beat: "It depends on which neighborhood you live in. It's never dry in New Orleans."
Kick out the jams
Thanks to younger artists like Galactic's Stanton Moore (who used to sit in with Porter at the now-closed Muddy Water's), the Meters have become household names in the jam band community. Still, Porter can't quite bring himself to endorse the genre as a whole.
"Man, I've heard some really bad bands out there that's doing really well," he says. "I think the jam community is not as what's the best way to say this I don't think they critique bands as much as jazz or R&B audiences would. Even in the jazz community, there are musicians these days that are doing very well that can't play their way out of a wet paper bag, you know?"
Some of today's best musicians, Porter believes, are actually in cover bands.
"There are musicians playing in some of the little clubs down in the well, not the Ninth Ward, because that no longer exists but in the Eighth and Seventh Ward. You walk into the joint, and you hear some of the most amazing musicians. And as soon as you walk out, that'll be the last time you'll hear from them. If you don't go back to that neighborhood, you won't see them play. Back in the old days when the Jazz Fest first started, those were the kind of bands they were bringing to the festival. That kind of stuff don't happen too much no more."
In fact, the Meters (who, sans Neville, will reunite for this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) started as a cover band. A supremely soulful cover of the Classics IV's "Stormy," released on New Orleans' Josie label, showed their ability to make just about any song their own.
The band recorded 10 albums in as many years, until Art went off with his brothers Aaron, Charles and Cyril. When asked why Porter himself never joined the Neville Brothers, he says the band is too structured for a player who likes to stretch out.
"Being in a band like the Nevilles, or a lot of groups out there that are strictly song-oriented, I'd be bored to death," he figures. "I loved playing with David Byrne, but every night, man, the songs were exactly the same. They didn't move in any direction, they just kind of laid right there, in that same pocket. On many a night, myself and the drummer Oscar [Salas], we'd be looking for somewhere to go jam."
So what will it take to get the Meters back in the studio?
"If I knew the answer to that, we'd probably be rich already," says Porter, who still invites his former bandmates to come write and record in his home studio. "I don't know what it takes for that particular band to organize and be productive. It's confusing to me."