Artist of the Month: George Porter Jr.
Well it’s already February, 2011 is off and running strong here in the Big Easy and Live Music Blog: NOLA is ready to feature it’s first Artist of the Month ever. And who better to recognize first than master funksmith and all around nice guy George Porter Jr.? There are few more involved and tireless musicians in the Big Easy than Porter. At 63 years young, the bass legend and founding member of The Meters is still challenging himself with new projects like 7 Walkers and making new generations of fans all over the world (a trip to Australia is on the horizon for the funky Meters). The funky Meters will hit the road for a run up in Brooklyn later this month, but not before George Porter and the Runnin’ Pardners take to the stage next Friday night (February 11th) at Tipitina’s. Recently, LMB NOLA caught up with George Porter Jr. to talk about the Meters past and present, his solo work, Bonnaroo (including speculation about a Dr. John/original Meters reunion that has yet to materialize), JamCruise, and the long-time mystery of New Orleans music’s conspicuous absence (with exceptions of course) from mainstream radio airplay.
LMB: NOLA – When did you guys decide to go back out on the road up to Brooklyn and all the way over to Australia?
George Porter Jr. – It’s not so much when the band is available; it’s when dates come along. The band never took itself off the road. We’ve always had scheduling difficulties (for the funky Meters) because of The Neville Brothers. Art’s first priority was always to do shows with his family. If there was a thorn in the band’s side, that would’ve been it, the fact that The Neville Brothers dates took priority. Even though The Neville Brothers haven’t been out on the road for quite some time, the funky Meters have pretty much been available when I wasn’t out playing a bunch of dates with 7 Walkers and my solo band Runnin’ Pardners. So I’ve definitely been tryin’ to stay busy.
LMB NOLA- [Laughs] It sounds like you’re doing a good job of that.
George Porter Jr. – To answer your question, the band doesn’t really decide when it wants to go on the road, management and agencies decide if and when they’re gonna book us.
When was the last time you went down to play in Australia?
Last time I was there was in ’92 or ’93 when I was there with David Byrne and we did Australia and New Zealand.
You’ve recorded with a lot of bands and been a lot of places with all these acts, is there a foreign country that you feel has shown a larger appreciation for the New Orleans sound and/or the bands you’ve appeared with abroad?
Of all the places I’ve been to acting as a New Orleans-based band, I did Taste of New Orleans for a little while around Europe, and Runnin’ Pardners mostly only played in Holland. Also, the original Meters did some touring with the Rolling Stones in ’76 overseas. It wasn’t that the fans didn’t appreciate us, It was just being the opening band for the Rolling Stones is not one of the most favorable places to be. I remember one show in Paris where Jagger and Keith came out on stage and kinda calmed down the rowdy crowd. They were just going crazy and didn’t even wanna see us. Jagger and Richards stayed out on the stage and sang “Fire On The Bayou” or some shit like that and they stayed out there for a few more songs. After they stayed out there with us about 10-15 minutes, left, the crowd quieted down. We played their rest of our set and the next two nights went really well. It wasn’t until those guys came out and said, “Man, you guys gotta cool down, listen up and you’ll like them” that the fans calmed down.
We’ve always had a really good fanbase in Europe. But even in most of the U.S., I’ve always felt that our biggest fanbase has been amongst musicians. I don’t think the populace, the music-buying public ever really got exposed to The Meters. Record companies and management and everybody in between dropped the ball when it came down to us because nobody knew how to market us. I had one record executive tell the band straight-out “You guys are too black to be white, and too white to be black.” He just didn’t know what to do with us.
The Meters, along with The Band, have always stuck out in my mind as the ultimate appeasers, the kind of stuff you can put on to satisfy a large and diverse crowd of folks with varying musical tastes. Both are a rare kind of music everyone can enjoy, and both are acts particularly appreciated by fellow musicians.
Well I think if the [Meters] got to be heard it would’ve been a different story. I just don’t think they ever got to be heard. When Sundaze re-released ten of our records or something like that, it still didn’t get a good response. It still didn’t do well. I believe they didn’t even do as well as the original records, which was again surprising. The music that we played just wasn’t mainstream. So we were very limited to who heard what we played. I always said we were musician’s musicians.
I always hear that tag given to artists like Warren Zevon and Townes Van Zandt, songwriters like that. I guess the Meters would have to be analogous to those guys as songwriters, but more from a musical standpoint as a band that so many artists turned to fill out their sound as a backing band, and also an influence to the extent that so many bands are still covering and emulating.
What kind of music informed The Meters in the early years? It seems to me that you guys sorta went your own route, and it’s easy for a lot of people to put funk in the same basket as James Brown or George Clinton, and even older stuff like Sam Cooke. What kind of stuff were you guys listening to and influenced by starting out?
I can pretty much say that for me personally, I listened to mostly jazz and almost strictly New Orleans music. In fact, the radio stations that we had down here back in those days played more local music than anything. I think it was WBOK that was the first black station. Then there was WTIX that came later on somewhere in the 50s. After that I think it was WWL that was playing Frankie Ford, guys like Earl King, Fats Domino, and Professor Longhair. It wasn’t until the 60s when record labels started actually changing the way it was going and really pushing their music and paying the radio stations.
When the outside record labels started wanting to get their bands in our neighborhood, that was a big deal and changed things. They were going in and starting to pay off the radio stations. New Orleans artists never really had that going, they just never had the money or support to go in and pay the radio stations to play our music [Laughs].
It’s funny because it’s been technically illegal for decades, but it still goes on under the guise of more indirect payments.
I betcha it’s still standard operating procedure, it’s just not as visible as it used to be.
Seems to me to just be a more complex system nowadays. The record labels pour a lot of money into advertising their bands on influential radio stations and bigger magazines and web sites and that directly lends itself to better reviews and directly leads to more airplay.
I absolutely agree with that, I absolutely agree.
Back to talking about New Orleans music and especially the early days, why do you think so much of the music to come out of New Orleans always spread the ‘feel good’ vibes in light of the fact that this place has had no shortage of ups and downs, but the message conveyed, especially by the Meters has been largely positive.
I would love to be able to answer that [laughs], the bigger question to me is why the local music doesn’t hit the mainstream. What is so wrong with New Orleans music that it doesn’t sell? That’s the thing I would really like to discover, I don’t think we’re really doing anything wrong. There’s some really great musicians down here playing some really great music, so why isn’t it getting those mainstream plays? Why hasn’t the Ponderosa thing taken off, and why hasn’t XM or Sirius created a New Orleans channel?
That’s a great point about satellite radio, I’m a subscriber to satellite radio and listen to that when I’m listening to WWOZ or WTUL. Digital radio is all about niche markets, and New Orleans is undoubtedly beyond a niche in terms of its international appeal and reach.
Absolutely, getting this music played and heard seems to be the mystery of the century, no not the century, well maybe…but definitely for the four decades I’ve been involved. Maybe the little independent stations around the country like WWOZ and some of the college radio stations around the country might play one or two songs every now and then. But the Meter catalogue in general is mostly unheard. I’m not even talking just about the Meters, I’m also talking about some of my solo records. I think I’ve done two really great musical barrier-crossing albums. My last one It’s Life I thought was one of my best efforts to date and I don’t hear that one on nobody’s station, not even WWOZ.
Even at the height of the The Meters success, you’ve always recorded and appeared live with a great number of musicians and bands and continue to be a big part of the jam band community and Jam Cruise. Just living in New Orleans as a musician, it seems to be the natural operating order for all of you guys to get out there as much as possible and play with different types of players. Do you attribute your longevity and prolific career to this? Do you find that collaborating with different kinds of musicians challenges you to reevaluate yourself from a technical standpoint or how does it affect you?
I think if there’s reason I’m still happening and still playing and still being called to play is because I kind of believe that as a player I still listen, I still play really well with other people. Because of who I am I don’t push my stuff on anybody. If you invite me to play your gig, I’m not gonna come in there and call songs, because I’m comin’ to play your gig. I’ve been in a lot of places where I try to discourage people from playing my songs. If I’m sitting with your band, it’s like “let’s play some of your shit bro.” [Laughs] I sit in with these guys like Galactic and they immediately break into one of my tunes, and I’m like “don’t y’all know some of your own music? I wanna hear some of that stuff!” If it’s something maybe I don’t know it, and some people just wanna hear them play some of my music with them playing. I like playing and I have a great set of ears that I like using, so it’s always fun to play with other guys.
Events like Bonnaroo and JamCruise which you were just on (George has been on five straight) both started in sort of the Jazz Fest tradition of the all-day/all-night party filled with live music. How would you compare these sorts of events with the atmosphere here during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, or Halloween weekend?
You know, JamCruise has somewhat of a captive audience [laughs], you can go and hide somewhere, but it’s kinda rough to get away from the music. But Bonnaroo, I remember being apart of the very first concept of that first one. I played several of them up until a point before they sorta stopped calling. I’ve even offered my solo bands even at cut-rate prices just to get on the bill. I believe funky Meters did it one time and got really great reviews from the fanbase. They put out a really super record/CD and DVD out and they didn’t even put the Meters performance on it. I don’t have the problem telling the truth about something. I seriously don’t understand Bonnaroo’s problem with the Meters, me, or Aaron. I don’t think any of us did anything but play music and play great. PBS played three years ago, they put us in a shitty tent with bad sound and we still did good.
Was that the weird Preservation Hall Tent?
Yeah, the production was not great and you couldn’t even get in there, we packed it. Once again the recording went out and our portion of the shows didn’t merit making it on the CD.
So no 7 Walkers at Bonnaroo as of yet?
At this point Bonnaroo has not been offered yet. Runnin Pardners is kind of dancin’ around that date because we’re being offered dates elsewhere during that period in time. My booking agents have been asking about 7 Walkers and the Funky Meters. There were rumors that Bonnaroo wanted the original Meters because it’s the anniversary coming up. Bonnaroo got their title from a Dr. John album (Desitively Bonnaroo) that the Meters played on and I heard they were going to book the original Meters with Dr. John as the backing band. But that’s a rumor and none of it’s been substantiated. Nobody called me, and because of the situation with the original Meters, they have to contact the individuals, we can’t be hired as a band, we have to be hired by individuals. We aren’t a band that’s represented by any single entity.
I didn’t realize you guys played on that one (Desitively Bonnaroo).
Oh yeah, we did both of Dr. John’s big earlier records, but he’s had bigger ones since then. We did a couple with him that got him back on the map. Well, Right Place, Wrong Time really put him back on the map. Desitively Bonnaroo was a weird one I think because Mac and the record label had sort of a falling out and as a result, it didn’t really get heard.
Who are three modern New Orleans musicians that you think the world at-large should take more note of?
Well, for one, George Porter, Jr.! Ya know, that’s a hard one, because I really don’t get out too much. I’m not sure what’s new on the scene. I’m imagining that Dumpstaphunk is working pretty well, I know Bonerama is doing pretty decent. I’m not sure how much airplay these guys are getting anywhere else though. Any one of Galactic or their side bands, I’m assuming they are probably doing pretty well. That’s a hard one to kind of pull out of the hat.
I just did a record with Jeremy Davenport, I’m not sure how that’s gonna do, I haven’t even heard the end result of that one. That’s a hard one, I can’t really answer that one. I don’t really know who is and who isn’t around town. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost a great deal of local music, the majority of music coming out of the city since is not really New Orleans music. It might be new New Orleans music by new artists who have came and made New Orleans home (like Anders Osborne). That’s a different thing, it’s not the Huey Smiths and the Frankie Fords or the Art Nevilles or the Meters. That’s a new breed of music that’s being recorded in New Orleans, but it’s not really New Orleans music in a traditional sense.
Who are three of your favorite contemporary bass players?
My three favorite or most influential?
How about influential?
[Laughs] I like Tony Hall and Nick Daniels (dual bassists from Dumpstaphunk) and then some of the young players whose names I don’t even know. Eric Krasno’s bass player I like him a lot. Eric Johnson is another one I like. There’s Chapter 11, the little bass player in that band is killer too. I’m a big fan of Andy Hess, I like the way Andy plays. The bass players that lean off the thumb-slap stuff are the guys I’m more apt to listen to.
Favorite Venue to play in town?
Uh oh, I’m not supposed to say that. If I say that then the other ones really won’t call me [Laughs]. Professionally speaking, there’s The Howlin Wolf, I get more work there and then Maple Leaf. The bigger rooms Tipitina’s and House of Blues have a rule that if I play there I can only play in the city once that month for that gig. That kind of automatically eliminates that in some instances because I gotta pay bills, so I play more often in some of the smaller rooms.
Which local venue has the best sound?
I would have to lean towards House of Blues having the best sound system. I have to speak for the stage because I don’t have a clue what the house sounds like, I can only go with what the stage sounds like. The best I can go by is who has the best monitoring system. If that’s the case then House of Blues would have the best. Tipitina’s has a good one too, especially if they got a good guy on the mixing desk who knows how to operate. That’s important to have a guy who knows how to use his gear, because he can make a bad system sound decent.
What is your favorite venue to play outside of New Orleans? That might be easier because now you’re not gonna offend anybody.
[Laughs] I really like the Nokia Theatre in New York City that was killer.
Good location huh? [In Times Square]
I really like that stage up there in Connecticut, I think it’s called Stage One. I love that place in upstate in the Woodstock area of New York. It’s either in Woodstock or the area, the whole set up there is really first-class. It’s a really beautiful room.
It was an honor, a privilege and a great time interviewing a funk legend, many thanks to George for taking his time to do the interview! We had to cut it a couple questions short so George could take his next interview in Australia before I got the chance to ask about his excellent and newest supergroup 7 Walkers, so. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend picking up a copy of 7 Walkers self-titled debut, released in November and featuring Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead), Papa Mali, Willie Nelson, and Matt Hubbard.
About the author
Wesley grew up in coastal Georgia and is a former resident of The Music City and The Big Easy where he helped get LMB NOLA off-the-ground after launching in January 2011. Over the past few years, he has also contributed steadily to JamBase and Relix Magazine. Recently, Hodges moved on to L.A. where Abita Beer is hard to find, costs about $6 if located and impromptu parading in the streets will most likely get you arrested on the spot.
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