The seemingly casual funk instrumentals that The Meters recorded in New Orleans around 1970 have become touchstones of American music, but the records stand outside the mainstream of funk in a way that belies their importance. The Meters split up in the late '70s after failing to break through commercially, and the four members of the band went on to form versions of the group that tour and record today. Meters bassist George Porter Jr. leads a band called The Funky Meters, while guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste front their own bands. Each reincarnation of the original group brings a slightly different approach to the sound of The Meters, and The Funky Meters apply jam-band principles to such material as "Fire on the Bayou."
Porter was born in New Orleans in 1947, and grew up near Modeliste. "When we were kids, both of us lived on Gravier Street, about four blocks from each other," Porter tells the Scene from his New Orleans home. "Somewhere around the age of 8, I took piano lessons from his older brother Clinton. After that I didn't see Zig until I moved up into 'Nevilleville,' the 13th Ward."
Today, keyboardist Art Neville — a member of the storied New Orleans family that includes singer Aaron and percussionist and keyboardist Cyril — plays in The Funky Meters with Porter. A member of the original Meters quartet, Art adds melodic, percussive lines to the fat grooves of Porter and drummer Russell Batiste Jr.
"The Funky Meters, being different personnel, of course, tend to be a little bit more rock-aggressive, versus the original band," Porter says. "The original band was definitely more of a groove-pocket thing, versus where the band is now. Both [guitarist] Brian Stoltz and Russell Batiste have more a rock background — Russell has been in the jam-band community for such a long time, you know."
On such original Meters recordings as 1969's "Rigor Mortis," Modeliste subverted the conventions of funk drumming by playing a dizzying array of offbeats. "Rigor Mortis" arises out of a deep calm, as if gleeful zombies had taken over a funk band and turned the project into an abstract warm-up for music that would be more fully fleshed out later.
"I don't like to say that Zig was an unorthodox drummer, but he just thought things differently, you know," says Porter. "He looked at the pictures much differently than just an everyday guy who plays drums, because the drummer is the guardian of the groove."
With Porter providing bass lines that advanced the groove that Modeliste sometimes seemed intent on abstracting, The Meters made funk whose approach contrasted with the more straightforward style of Memphis' Booker T. and the MGs. Sometimes working with New Orleans composer and pianist Allen Toussaint, The Meters played on records by Lee Dorsey and Toussaint himself.
Porter has kept busy — in the '90s, I saw him play with the great Crescent City guitarist Snooks Eaglin, and you can hear various Meters combinations on such pop records as LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" and Robert Palmer's 1974 Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley LP.
While Porter leads both The Funky Meters and another band, Runnin' Pardners, the original quartet got together in 2011 to re-create Dr. John's 1974 Desitively Bonnaroo at the Tennessee festival that took its name from the album. Great interpreters and session players, The Meters also created their own funk idiom.
"There's something about reading the dots and creating the dots," says Porter, "and The Meters were a group of people who created dots."