The University is shut down and I’m at home watching the snow pick back up. But in New Orleans, they are beginning the penultimate weekend of Carnival, the real lead up to Mardi Gras. And while I’m far from the parades and the beads, I’m basking in the warm sounds of another New Orleans cultural force, the Meters.
The Meters briefly crossed my radar during my college days in the mid 1970s. They were shaking up the R&B charts with their tight grooves and New Orleans-inspired syncopations. With their sound, they helped raise producer Allen Toussaint’s stature and, more importantly, pave the way for funk. Alas, my musical interests were elsewhere.
Fast forward several decades and I’m exploring “all things New Orleans” while developing my first year seminar on the Crescent City. Not surprisingly, as a musical omnivore, a lot of my energies focused on the musical traditions. In particular, I became fascinated with the post-war popular music. I had some grasp of New Orleans traditional jazz or, at least recordings from its revival in the 1950s and 1960s. But I discovered that while I was familiar with Dr. John and Harry Connick, Jr., I knew little about Fats Domino and Toussaint, and nothing about geniuses like Professor Longhair or James Booker. And then there was this group called the Meters (and New Orleans brass bands, but that will have to wait).
I read books, articles, liner notes, listened to interviews on WWOZ. Dr. John would be describing a tune and without skipping a beat (pun intended) would say something like: “we just lifted that groove from the Meters.” Harry Connick, Jr., same thing. No hiding it, no shame. It was like quoting scripture. The Meters were the source.
So I went straight to the source and discovered that in less than a decade, Art Neville on vocals and keyboard, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on percussion, laid down some spectacular tracks. As Toussaint’s house band, they backed up people like Lee Dorsey and Dr. John. They have played with the likes of Paul McCartney, Labelle, Robert Palmer, and the Rolling Stones. And as front men, they created such memorable tunes as “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” and “Jungle Man.” Just last month, I was watching the Bruce Willis movie “Red,” and the unmistakable opening guitar line of “Cissy Strut” lit up the soundtrack. It actually proved a distraction for me as I lost myself in the music and not the scene.
The Meters broke up in 1977, shortly after appearing on “Saturday Night Live.” They got embroiled in a lawsuit with Allen Toussaint over the terms of their original contract and all but Modeliste have settled. So, in the nearly 35 years since they went their separate ways, the Meters have existed primarily through their recordings and continued influence – until recently.
I heard Nocentelli interviewed on WWOZ yesterday and today’s Times-Picayune has an article on his return to New Orleans. He’s home from California to play a gig at Tipitina’s which will include Art Neville and, I suspect, a few Meters’ classics. And in June, all four of the original Meters plan to reunite at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival to play behind Dr. John. They intend to recreate their recording of Dr. John’s “Desitively Bonnaroo,” which later gave the 10 year-old festival its name.
Here’s hoping that it will lead to extended collaborations and maybe even more recordings. And while some of them might live elsewhere, Nocentelli made it very clear on WWOZ where his heart is: “That’s [Burbank, CA] where I lay my head, but my heart is always in New Orleans, and always will be. I’m gonna be ‘local’ if I move to Jupiter.”