Editor’s note: Sources in this story were interviewed by author Tim Parsons over the past several years for Tahoe Onstage, Blues Music Magazine and Lake Tahoe Action.
Even if you don’t know the Meters, you’ve heard the band’s music.
The Meters are to New Orleans as what the Funk Brothers are to Motown, session players on hundreds of popular songs. The band played behind Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Robert Palmer and Lee Dorsey. It recorded a number of its own records from its formation in the late 1960s until disbanding in 1977.
Parliment-Funkadelic’s George Clinton said the Meters are his greatest influence. It doubtless is one of the most sampled bands ever. Original members keyboardist Art “Papa Funk” Neville, bassist George Porter Jr., electric guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste had a distinct style of tight melodic grooves played over second-line rhythms that define the New Orleans sound.
Why the Meters never became a household name is a mystery.
“I would like to be able to like to say I could blame it on management,” Porter said. “But it could have been our own fault just because we were more of a syncopated kind of group and more of the world (likes) straight-ahead music that can be dictated by the dance piece, although I find New Orleans music to be very danceable. That kind of takes the pressure off of the management trying to sell us.”
The Meters reunited this year for a show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. However, there are two other versions of the band, the Original Meters with Neville, Porter, Nocentelli and a keyboardist, who, during a 2013 Lake Tahoe appearance was John “Papa” Gros. The Funky Meters — the band that will play at Crystal Bay on Friday — are Neville, Porter, guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer Terrence Houston. Neville, the original bandleader, has resumed playing live after taking a few years off.
In a 2009 interview, Art Neville described his influences and the rise of the Meters.
“My thing was to take any song and do it your own way, and that’s how we came up with the idea of the funk,” said, now 78. “We were all young guys who were open to everything and we tried it and it’s obvious what happened. It was one of the great groups.
“The influence, from my point, came from Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter. It was a whole bunch of different piano players that I listened to. Booker T and the MGs, sure, that’s one of my favorite bands.
“I used to have to ask these guys’ mothers, could they go play on a gig? That’s how young they were. Porter had three strings on his bass for a long time. We were not as successful (as we could have been). I wish I could tell you why but I don’t know. We played with the Stones in Europe and I thought after that everything was going to be great, but it wasn’t.”
Fellow musicians consider the Meters royalty. Zeb Early and Steve LaBella have a North Shore-based Meters tribute band, Funky Miracle, named for a Meters song. The Reno-Truckee group the Sextones often plays Meters covers. And when the Original Meters played in Tahoe in 2013, Mojo Green drummer Frank “Fletch” Fletcher stood in the front of the stage and said, “This is like going to church.”
Papa Mali, who will appear at this summer’s High Sierra Music Festival, noted, “Not too many people know about the Meters. It’s strange to me. I’m a music freak. I am a record collector and it’s hard for me to imagine that not everybody knows about them.”
Charlie Dolan, bass player for the the band TAUK, another group at this summer’s High Sierra Music Festival, said, “The Meters bass lines were the first I learned as a kid, and I am sure that goes to for many, many bass players. George Porter Jr.’s influence on bass players and music in general is huge. If you have a jazz band there is almost no way you haven’t learned the ‘Cissy Strut.’ It’s almost impossible.”
“Cissy Strut” is a tune the Meters spontaneously created during a break when it was the house band at the Ivanhoe nightclub in the French Quarter.
In the mid-1960s, “Papa Funk” was leading a band called Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. The band included brothers Art, Aaron and Cyril Neville and saxophonist Gary Brown. The Ivanhoe club owner wanted to hire an instrumental band, which became the Meters. Aaron and Cyril continued with their own group, the Soul Machine.
The Ivanhoe gig captured the attention of Toussaint, who employed the Meters as a session band. Aaron became the most famous of the brothers as a solo singer. Cyril eventually joined the Meters, who on its later records incorporated singing.
“The Meters, as far as funk and the sounds associated with New Orleans, is at the top of the list with one of the most sampled groups,” Cyril Neville said. “As far as the hip-hop world is concerned, the Meters are right up there with James Brown and George Clinton. The Meters are at the top of the list as far as innovators and people who changed things and influenced a whole lot of other people. The first time I heard the Police, that’s the first thing that’s came into my mind. Those were some guys who like the Meters and liked that and mixed that in their gumbo.”
The Funky Meters, who will appear Friday, June 17, in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room, were started as an informal jam at the 1989 New Orleans Jazz Festival with Art Neville, Porter, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. It added guitarist Brian Stoltz and came up with its name and began to perform in 1994. Art Neville’s son Ian replaced Stoltz from 2007 to 2011, when Stoltz returned. Drummer Houston joined the Funky Meters in 2014.
An innovative new band from Santa Cruz — 7 Come 11 — will open for the Funky Meters at Lake Tahoe on Friday and at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Saturday. Led by Berklee College of Music alumni and Hammond B3 player Gianni Staiano, 7 Come 11 also opened for the Meters reunion show at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Perhaps a moderd-day version of the Meters, the band recently released an EP, “Light It Up,” which Staiano said was inspired by his studying music in West Africa.
“It awakened this whole new person inside me,” Staiano said in a press statement. “The music is so much more intense. … If I’m going out what do I want to do? I want to go out and dance to some good music. Not something where the drop happens every 60 seconds and everybody takes a selfie. I want to get down. I want to get into it.”
- The Funky Meters
Opener: 7 Come 11
When: 9 p.m. Friday, June 17
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Red Room after-party: Mojo Green
Tickets: $27 in advance or $32 on the day of the show