Posted by whoafatt on August 03, 2006 at 12:24:42 [ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ]


Journal Pop Music Writer

It took nearly 30 years to get The Meters back together, but the two-disk recording of their first reunion performance, at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, proves they haven't lost a step.

They'll reunite again Sunday on the stage of the Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Festival, at Fort Adams in Newport.

The Meters -- Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter Jr. on bass and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste on drums -- were one of the funkiest bands alive, and one of the first bands to bring the funk music of New Orleans to a wider audience.

Their first five albums in particular -- 1969's The Meters through 1974's Rejuvenation -- are quintessential party records, with chant-along vocals (most of the first two records, in fact, were instrumental) accompanying object lessons in small-group funk, with a relaxed but indestructible groove that's part African-American, part Caribbean and all Crescent City.

Where funkateers such as James Brown and George Clinton slammed onto the downbeat, The Meters danced around it, coming up with a groove that was sinuous, complex and hard to replicate.

And their influence is still felt today: Public Enemy's Hank Shocklee told the San Francisco Chronicle, "That was the formula for funk and hip-hop as we know it." A sample of Modeliste's drums formed the backbone to Amerie's hit single "1 Thing" earlier this year.

The Meters broke up in 1977 because of a raft of internal conflicts, including the emergence of The Neville Brothers, for whom Neville left the original group. (There was also a conflict over money and naming rights with their producers, Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn.) The reunion that began last year is their first. But those nearly 30 years are what helped get the group back together, Nocentelli says.

"Time is a very strong thing to have happen to you. If you live long enough, time plays a part in anything. I think it was just everybody kind of maturing. Sometimes it takes different people longer to mature than others, and I think some of us had to catch up with each other, so to speak."

Some version of The Meters (known as The Funky Meters since Nocentelli's departure) has been back on the road since 1990, but never with Modeliste, and Nocentelli had been out of the band since 1994.

"There've always been some Meters. But I think the [departure] that made it where we really weren't The Meters was Zig, because Zig left the band about 25 years ago. But there've been, sometimes George and myself, sometimes George and Art, blah, blah, blah. But I think the fact that Zig came aboard made it the first time."

Until now, Nocentelli points out, people have been seeing "a facsimile of the Meters. . . . This is a special machine, man. Nobody can be a Cadillac but a Cadillac. You can't put a Toyota part in a Rolls-Royce; it won't work."

Back to New Orleans

Nocentelli lives in Burbank, Calif., and goes back to New Orleans on a regular basis -- four times, by his estimation, since Hurricane Katrina, the last time for this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival for another Meters show. He goes back regularly, "fortunately or unfortunately. Because it is so devastating to go back there now. . . . It is unreal, what went down down there. I can't even explain; you'd have to go down there to really see."

Nocentelli says the rebuilding process is going very slowly. "I tell people it's like a tale of two cities. On one side, it's horrible, with wind damage and people's roofs off their houses and stuff like that. And on the other side of town, you can see where it's completely gone. Just gone. Anytime you can find a house on top of a car, the car didn't drive itself underneath the house. It's unreal. . . .

"I was happy to see the turnout for the Jazz Fest, and the Mardi Gras, and I think progressively it'll get better every year, but in terms of the city being back anywhere near like it was -- before I went down there, I was thinking it'll be OK in three or four or five years. But man, we're talking maybe 30 or 40 years before you can go anywhere in the city and not see devastation."

As a result of the storm, Nocentelli says, the music of New Orleans has become more important than ever.

"What kept this city together? It all comes down to the music that New Orleans is known for. . . .

"There's no L.A. music. There's no New York music. . . . There's only two places in the United States that have an image of their music, and that's Nashville and New Orleans. . . . When you say New Orleans music, people know what you're talking about. . . .

"And I think [the hurricane] brought out the realization that the real seasoned musicians have left."

Nocentelli lives in Burbank; Modeliste, in Oakland; Aaron Neville, in Nashville; Cyril Neville, in Austin; Porter lives in suburban Louisiana.

To address this, one of Nocentelli's current projects is the New Orleans Social Club, a revolving group including Nocentelli, Porter, Henry Butler, Ivan Neville, Irma Thomas and several other Nevilles and other singers.

"We're trying to spread the word out all over the country and the world, that this is New Orleans music, and we want to bring it back, and we want to keep it alive."

Lots of backup

In their career, the Meters backed up New Orleans artists such as Lee Dorsey and Dr. John, as well as less likely singers such as Patti LaBelle ("Lady Marmalade") and Robert Palmer ("Sneaking Sally Through the Alley"), giving each artist the Meters' trademark sound and fitting together with the singers' strengths. Similar to Motown's Funk Brothers, you could put virtually anyone on top of The Meters and it would work out well.

The Meters were able to take their music in directions old and new. In 1976, the group played on the Wild Tchoupitoulas project as well as releasing their own Trick Bag album. The Wild Tchoupitoulas record includes The Meters and what would become The Neville Brothers, playing and singing behind The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a legendary New Orleans "black Indian" Mardi Gras parade group; it's as sweaty and swampy as New Orleans electric music gets. Trick Bag opens with "Disco Is the Thing Today."

The next year saw both the New Directions album and the breakup of the Meters. When Art Neville got together with his brothers, it could have meant the expansion of the Meters, but instead it was the end of the group.

"I think that was the turning point of the Meters' demise," Nocentelli says. ". . . Not knocking anybody's decision or whatever to leave the band, but we did this album New Directions, which was the first time Warner Brothers spent some money on us, and there was a real opportunity there . . . 'Let's go on and make these guys.' And we had some internal problems, and the group broke up consequently because of that."

The Meters ended with only a handful of minor hits under their own name, most notably "Cissy Strut" and "Hey Pocky A-Way." It seems like a lost opportunity.

Still, Nocentelli looks to the positive.

"On the good side, The Neville Brothers was formed when Art left the band, which was good -- I'm really happy for Art and his brothers that that eventuated. But things work itself out.

"I put it like this: The Meters could've happened when we did New Directions, or they could have not. But whatever happened back then made The Meters what they are today.

"So you can't really look at it in retrospect and criticize it, because I think the Meters are in a better position now than they ever were -- or ever would've been."

Playing once a month

Since reuniting, the band plays "not enough," Nocentelli says -- roughly once a month, in large cities. Everybody has his own solo career, the guitarist says, most notably Art Neville's continuing involvement with The Neville Brothers and Nocentelli's and Porter's involvement with the New Orleans Social Club.

"But hopefully the original Meters will be doing more work in the future," he says.

There's talk about a new Meters record, Nocentelli says. "I'm biting my teeth. . . . I'm very optimistic about that." It's also "a great possibility" that the Nevilles would be involved as singers.

"You never know. There's talking now, and if we live long enough, that might be the whole key to everything. There's an old saying that the end justifies the means -- it doesn't matter what happened before, as long as the end turns out OK."

Either way, Newport audiences will have the chance to see musical history this weekend -- a one-of-a-kind band that Nocentelli says you won't see the likes of again.

"I'm not saying there aren't other bands out there that are just as good or maybe better. But what the Meters did, no. I think The Meters was one, and you ain't gonna see it no more. . . .

"What the Meters have done, and what they've contributed to the music industry -- the world should know it, and this is a perfect way to let them know."


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