It is said that out of darkness comes light. From the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, an outpouring of sympathy and aid came from the outside world. Many displaced residents of New Orleans fled the destruction and journeyed to different parts of the country. A number of musicians from the area took the opportunity to set aside any differences there may have been and hit the road, spreading the Dionysian gospel of the Mardi Gras spirit to eager audiences. Artists that had been taken for granted started showing up as stars (Dr. John at the Super Bowl and the Grammys comes to mind), and bands that haven't played together in months or even years were beginning to re-emerge. Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk swung through town a few months back; and recently The Meters made their way to Denver as well.
Formed in New Orleans in the mid-60s, The Meters began as four guys that just flat-out enjoyed making music with one another. A decade later, they were touring with the Rolling Stones, doing private parties for the McCartneys, making music with Dr. John, appearing on SNL, and recording as the most in-demand studio group in New Orleans, lending their talent to artists like Robert Palmer for his classic funk groove, "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley." Despite this seemingly high-profile resume, they never had that one smash radio hit to catapult them from being a "band's band" to a household name.
For those in the music industry, the story of The Meters serves as a cautionary tale. A couple execs heard them playing at a club, told them they were going to be huge, and had slanted contracts drawn up to separate the band from their right to claim profit. These contract disputes fractured the band in 1977, sending members their separate ways. The band would play again but much less frequently and without any additional work in the studio. Side projects assumed larger roles, and pretty soon, more than 25 different bands would include members of the original Meters, including the Neville Brothers and The Funky Meters.
Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste took some time to review the contracts and was so stunned by what he read, he filed suit against the execs around 1990. The timing could not have been better, as hip-hop was beginning to take off and classic samples from The Meters fueled beats from N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest, The Beastie Boys, and others. Royalties were the major issue, and Modeliste eventually got an out-of-court settlement, though some unresolved issues still linger today.
During these subsequent years, the work of The Meters seemed destined for relative obscurity – most of their original albums were out of print and rare vinyl releases were fetching more than $100 a piece. Only word-of-mouth, admiration from Mike Gordon and other members of Phish, and (usually unattributed) covers by artists like Galactic and Robert Walter remained to sustain the legacy of one of our nation's founding funk bands.
Years passed without any hint of a reunion, and it appeared that the band's story was left for others to retell. As it turned out, the legendary quartet of Art Neville (keys), George Porter Jr. (bass), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (drums) felt their book deserved another chapter.
Their reunion at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was billed as a "Farewell Show," but the performance ended with a "wink-wink, nod-nod" moment with Modeliste saying, "We'll see you again." A few months passed, and Katrina sapped the humor from the situation but added a newfound sense of appreciation and urgency for the reunion attempt.
Fast-forward a couple months, and The Meters are back - for now, at least. The band selected Denver's hallowed Fillmore Auditorium to set up shop for the night, complete with lush carpeting, dimly-lit walkways, a large wooden dance floor fronted by a booming sound system, and purple-hued chandeliers accented by hundreds of framed photos of the acts that had passed through the doors of The Fillmore. The place just reeks of musical history, so it was only fitting that the founding fathers of funk would host a Katrina Benefit within its halls.
At the stroke of 9:30, The Meters burst into action with a short, explosive opener that gave way to the fan-favorite "Cissy Strut." Now for those who have only heard The Meters Best Of album with "Real New Orleans Funk" plastered on the bottom – this was a tad different. The disc is solid, but the songs seem more delicate and only one stretches past the 3:30 mark. This was a loud-'n-proud, stomping funk. Porter's thunderous plunks on the bass were hatcheted off by a snap of the snare drum as the rhythm section became the first to congeal.
A brief aside: I managed to catch Galactic a few months ago at The Fillmore - great show, punctuated with jams featuring the Rebirth Brass Band and Leo Nocentelli. At the time, I hadn't a clue of Nocentelli's background, but I thought he had a fantastic and distinctive sound. It wasn't until a couple weeks before this show that I realized Nocentelli was the same guitarist that seemed content playing rhythm guitar on so many tracks for The Meters – I was looking forward to his bridging the gap.
Nocentelli and Neville did not disappoint. Art Neville was the first to clock in with an ascending spiral of a solo that drew a number of cheers. A few songs into the night, the crowd had settled in. Ticket prices of $32.50 prevented a sell-out, but not by much. The audience was a friendly mix of aging baby boomers with the usual Saturday night show-catchers.
Neville was giving the sound engineer visual cues for the drums to be higher in the mix, and over the next several minutes, the sound improved a great deal. The band seemed to be playing well, and the crowd was certainly having a good time. To the astonishment of everyone, Neville takes the mic and apologizes: "We'll get it together soon."
Wow. That'll work.
George Porter, Jr. - The Meters :: 04.22
The tune that followed unleashed a brief bass-and-drum duel, which gave way to a magnificent solo by George Porter, Jr. He confidently rollicked around a number of musical thoughts, hopping around on the lower register before nimbly resurfacing back to the meat of the song. It was nothing short of amazing.
The next highlight came as Neville shifted to the organ for the unmistakable intro to "Hang 'em High," the Dominic Frontiere classic. Who? (Don't worry, I thought it was Booker T. and the MG's until this morning.) After a brief foray into the seminal western movie theme song, it was back to the meat and potatoes that brought them acclaim.
The infectious "Funky Miracle" was the next big crowd-pleaser to surface, and it seemed to vanish into an entirely separate jam before being resurrected, to the surprise of more than a few people.
Nocentelli, Porter, Neville - The Meters :: 04.22
The only gripe with The Meters performance is that the vocal levels are horribly distorted. For the songs, this doesn't pose a major obstacle as the vast majority of the songs have few lyrics, if any. When Art Neville, or anyone else, would briefly attempt to speak to the crowd, however, most couldn't make out a blasted thing he was saying. As this was a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina, one would imagine he would be talking about that at some point, so it was unfortunate the crowd was unable to make out what he was saying.
Sludgy vocals aside, the message was heard loud and clear during the show-stopper of the night, "Talkin' Bout New Orleans," from their 1975 release, Fire on the Bayou, which featured their most inspired playing of the evening. Neville's swells on the keys were met with a Nocentelli guitar solo that grew in intensity as Porter made his way up the scale. The band drew the music to a peak, then stopped on a dime and passed the torch to the rhythm section, which rebuilt the song from the ground floor. In classic Meters fashion, they left the down-beat silent, giving the jam more power as the other members created sounds in the remaining space. The band hit full stride and drew the song to a final, triumphant apex that sent waves through the Denver crowd.
From the dark trenches of their contract dispute, The Meters struggled to regain the rights to their own music. Their critically acclaimed albums from the 60s and 70s will now be re-released. The ruins of Katrina have served to bring the band back together – if for only a brief time - after a nearly 30-year hiatus. Out of darkness comes light, and judging by the abundance of excited smiles exiting The Fillmore, The Meters message of hope, possibility, and perseverance was clearly heard.