Music

George Porter Jr.: The man bringing the funk to Fuji Rock

by William Archambeault

Contributing Writer

If the Beatles are Liverpool’s fab four, The Meters are New Orleans’ funky four.

During the 1960s and ’70s, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, keyboardist Arthur “Art” Neville, and guitarist Leo Nocentelli created music that is still recognized globally as some of New Orleans’ most iconic sounds.

The group began its career with sharp instrumental grooves before later moving towards vocal cuts and adding singer and percussionist Cyril Neville. In addition to being featured on their own releases, The Meters were also a prominent studio band in New Orleans, backing hits by artists like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Robert Palmer.

Following its breakup in the late 1970s, the band’s records became a popular source for samples in hip-hop, appearing on songs by the likes of N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy.

In celebrating five decades of The Meters, George Porter Jr. & Friends will appear at Fuji Rock Festival ’19 on July 27.

In 2018, The Meters were recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I’m still kind of confused about that!,” says Porter with a laugh. “I’m honored at the fact that they gave us a lifetime achievement award for just existing.”

And Porter is grateful for his long career in music.

“If I knew that I would still be playing at 71, I’d have taken much better care of myself,” he says. “To be still playing at this late part of my life is very gratifying.”

The Meters have also been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame four times, first in 1997 and most recently in 2017.

“I would be honored if it happens,” says Porter about finally getting into the hall, but adds that he doesn’t count on it changing his career. “I’ve seen people get put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and still not do great.”

Porter’s set at Fuji Rock might be the closest thing that Japan will ever get to a performance by The Meters.

The original band last played in 2017 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary with a few select performances. Last December, Neville announced his retirement from music at 81 years old, making it unlikely that the group will ever perform again.

Neville, Porter, Modeliste and Nocentelli have never performed together in Japan, but multiple Meters offshoots have taken the long flight over since the 1980s.

Neville’s retirement may also mean an end to Funky Meters, a group featuring him and Porter that continued to perform The Meters’ music during the original group’s lengthy inactive periods. Funky Meters made numerous trips to Japan over the years, including a 2009 appearance at Fuji Rock.

Porter claims that his slot was originally offered to Foundation of Funk, his current group with Modeliste, but that the drummer turned it down due to qualms about the lengthy flights required for a single appearance.

While Porter will be the only Meter on stage at Fuji Rock to celebrate the band’s legacy this summer, he will surround himself with a cast of New Orleans musicians well-versed in his former group’s deep funk. Keyboardist Michael Lemmler and drummer Terrence Houston, also a Funky Meter, have spent years performing alongside Porter in his trio.

Members of Dumpstaphunk, a New Orleans funk group that performed at Fuji Rock in 2012, will join the trio to make the performance a family affair. Dumpstaphunk keyboard player and singer Ivan Neville, Art Neville’s nephew, assisted the The Meters as an auxiliary member during the band’s last few years of reunion shows. Guitarist Ian Neville, Art Neville’s son, spent years performing The Meters’ tunes alongside his father and Porter as a member of Funky Meters.

Dumpstaphunk guitarist Tony Hall, who Porter calls “just as much of a kid of mine,” completes the group.

Porter says he began playing alongside Hall when Hall was only 5 or 6 years old. “He played every instrument that was at my house.”

Porter expects to butt heads a little with Hall and Ivan Neville over the arrangements for the show but nonetheless expects the best.

“They’re about The Meters,” says the bassist. “When they play Meters songs, they want to play them like The Meters did.”

In contrast, Porter prefers looser arrangements.

“The music, for me, is over 50 years old, so I just feel that I have a right to change it,” says the bassist with a laugh. He also notes that nobody plays exactly like his former bandmates.

On June 6, the death of the multi-talented musician Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, shook New Orleans’ music community.

The Meters served as the core backing band on “In the Right Place” and “Desitively Bonnaroo,” two of Rebennack’s quintessential 1970s albums. In 2011, Rebennack reunited with the band to perform the latter album in its entirety at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which takes its name from the release.

The bassist says that Rebennack’s passing inspired Art Neville to reach out to his former bandmates. “I actually spoke with him the day that we got the word that Dr. John passed away, because his wife called me and said that Art wanted to talk to all of us. She called everybody in the band.”

Porter says he was away from New Orleans for an out-of-town performance when he first heard about Rebennack’s passing. He has experienced a number of similar incidents.

“When Earl King passed away, I was not home. When my brother passed away, I wasn’t home. When my mom passed away, I wasn’t home. When Allen Toussaint passed away, I was in California,” says Porter. “A lot of my friends have passed away and I’ve been on the road.”

Still playing regularly at the age of 71, Porter continues to be one of New Orleans’ hardest working musicians.

Despite his age, the bassist frequently performs outside of New Orleans and, in recent years, has jammed onstage with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grateful Dead offshoot Dead & Company. Every Monday, the bassist and his trio continue to hold down the funk at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. If Porter isn’t on tour somewhere else, he can be found there without fail.

That is except for part of June and earlier this month, when he went on vacation to Alaska. He explains that the trip was his first real vacation in “probably a little over 30 years.” The reprieve appears to have been much welcomed.

“We saw a lot of wildlife that you only see on TV,” says Porter with a wide smile.

George Porter Jr. & Friends play the Field of Heaven at Fuji Rock Festival ’19 on Saturday, July 27. For more information on George Porter Jr., visit www.georgeporterjr.com. For details on the Fuji Rock fesival, visit en.fujirockfestival.com.

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