The Funky Meters
The Bluesfest side-shows are a helluva thing, a gift really for those that can’t make the trek north, and this year there are some crackers. Few are as impressive as The Funky Meters, the current touring incarnation of The Meters. A legendary New Orleans soul and funk outfit, if you haven’t heard of The ‘Meters you are in for a schooling. There are bands that have invented a sound – say like how you always know an AC/DC record simply from the use of power chords… but all said and done it’s still rock – well that ain’t nothing: The Meters pretty much invented a genre. Funk as we know it would not exist without them (though credit where it’s due, James Brown also had a hand in things).
Founding member and keys player Art Neville was born 1937 and he fittingly talks like an old blues man, drawing out his words and chuckling to himself. Chatting with Art on the eve of Mardi Gras this year, he is gracious but curt, which is fair, he is, after all 74. He has done this all before and will do it again, so consider this a history of his exploits with occasional commentary from the man himself. At 17 years of age, Art joined The Hawkettes, who recorded the New Orleans anthem Mardi Gras Mambo in 1954.
“I didn’t know I wanted to get into music,” Art explains. “I just had an opportunity to play with The Hawkettes and I took it. They asked my mother and father could I do it, they said ‘yes’, so I took it… and the rest is history.”
The band went through line-up changes – touring on with Art holding it together until he was drafted for two years active duty with the Navy reserve. Art’s brother Aaron kept playing with The Hawkettes, keeping the band chugging along in his absence and when Art got out of service, he returned to playing with his old friends.
People came and went, lineups changed and what they were left with was essentially the line-up for The Meters – that was Art, of course, George Porter Jr. on bass and vocals, Zigaboo Modeliste hitting the skins and Leo Nocentelli playing guitar. Though this is a contentious point, concerning the numbers of the band – Art was offered the chance to play the Ivanhoe bar in New Orleans' French Quarter, an aspirational slot among local musicians, except that the venue could only accommodate four musicians onstage… and the band at that stage had three too many. So it was there, out of necessity at The Ivanhoe, that The Meters were born.
The band released The Meters in 1969, featuring the instrumentals Cissy Strut and Sophisticated Cissy. And fromt hat point on, they were made men. “We didn’t know what we were gonna sound like,” Art confesses. “We just tried to play good and tried to come up with stuff we thought would be good and evidently we hit the spot because we came up with some stuff that’s been around a looong time.”
Not content just playing their own gear, if a major artist that needed to sound hip, cool and funky, they came down to New Orleans and got The Meters to back them. The Meters played on Lady Marmalade by Labelle, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley by Robert Palmer, Right Place, Wrong Time by Dr John – which proved doubly fortuitous, as "I just talked to him a couple days ago,” Art says of the legend that is Dr John. “I talk to him all the time, he’s my friend. We’ve been friends for a looong, long time.”
The Meters also played on Working In A Coal Mine by Lee Dorsey and even a gawwwd awful Mardi Gras single released by Paul McCartney and Wings (don’t Google it, it’s Wings, it’s bad). This led them to opening for The ‘Stones on two consecutive American and European tours.
Not one to waste words, Art simply says, “That was a great time, an exceptional gig. Those guys were great, very friendly, it was all-good.”
But this isn’t even why they are impressive. It is influence. It is one thing to be famous, people on the street can know your name but Justin Beiber has proven that ideal is no achievement really.
But musical influence, for forty odd years, that is something.
The Meters tracks became thebuilding blocks for modern hip-hop. The music of The Meters has been sampled over 140 times and the track Cissy Strut has been sampled at least 18 times. The likes of Heavy D, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah have sampled The Meters. Hell, even Red Hot Chili Peppers have given them a shout out in a song.
Touring now as The Funky Meters, across all those years people have come and gone but Art is still playing his songs with George Porter Jr still in the band. “The Funky Meters is almost like a jam band,” Art laughs.
“It’s good man, I enjoy it, and I love still doing it. If you don’t come down, you gonna
miss something; put it like that, you’ll be missing out.”
THE FUNKY METERS will be brining the party and playing their genre-defining funk, soul jams at The Corner Hotel this Sunday April 17 – tickets from The Corner box office, 9427 9198 and cornerhotel.com. They also play BLUESFEST, running from April 21-26 in Byron Bay – info from bluesfest.com.au.