By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
On the flight back to New Orleans after recording the Meters' eighth album, founder and leader Art Neville announced that he was leaving the band. It was 1977, and things hadn't been going well for the quartet that year; financially speaking, they never had. But it didn't feel like a fitting end to the funkiest foursome in history, the group Mick Jagger had declared "the best motherfuckin' band in the world." The players were still young men, with plenty of reason to believe their unique ensemble was on the brink of another significant recombination of sound. The title of the Meters' newly finished record -- New Directions -- suddenly took on an ironic meaning.
Twenty-three years later, that ending still seems premature to Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, the band's drummer and all-around polyrhythmic innovator. "Everything is time," he explains in his Big Easy accent. "If you play drums, everything is time. And it was just bad timing.
"Just when we were really starting to feel like there were some things we could do even better than we had done, the group disbanded. I thought we were at a critical point because we were just about to make that next step."
Funk aficionados, hip hop producers, the Rolling Stones, and everyone else whose life was touched by the Meters can only imagine what that new direction might have been. This Saturday at the Warfield, however, the Meters will reunite for one show, possibly providing a glimpse of those days of future past.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed with reunion gigs, especially when they are this long in coming. The original four members -- Modeliste, George Porter Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and Neville on keyboards -- have played together only once during the last two decades, and that was for a single song, "Hey Pocky A-Way," at the end of a 1991 gig with Nocentelli's solo band. ("And it was a short "Hey Pocky A-Way' at that," Porter remembers.) What's more, because of obligations to other bands, the quartet's rehearsal time for the reunion has been limited to three six-hour sessions.
Modeliste, who lives in Oakland and posed the idea of a Bay Area reunion to the other members, acknowledges that, while the timing may not be perfect, it's as good as it's going to get. "If the band had a chance to rehearse for a month, learn all of that stuff all over again -- I mean everything -- you'd get the full quality of what it was. But right now, because of the time and because it was the only slot that we had to pull it off in this area this year, we had to do it like this."
In the history of popular music -- before the band and since -- the Meters stand out as an aberration. According to any conventional models for success, the Meters should have never happened, or at least never made it beyond the bayous of Louisiana. An instrumental R&B group that was stingy on the vocals and even stingier on melody, built around the outlandish syncopation of New Orleans marching bands? As Modeliste puts it, "That was just unheard of."
The band wasn't born out of a self-conscious desire to break any molds; it just happened that way. Neville, who was 10 years older than the other Meters, had already made a name for himself in 1955 with the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo." After quitting that band, Neville's brother Aaron scored a big hit with "Tell It Like It Is," and Neville joined him on tour to support it.
When he came back home, he decided to form his own band, the Neville Sound Band. Soon Modeliste, Porter, Nocentelli, and a tenor saxophonist named Gary Brown were gigging with Neville regularly on Louisiana Avenue at the Nite Cap Lounge. They covered popular soul songs by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, along with local hits by Fats Domino and Earl King. Neville sang lead, his brothers Cyril and Aaron frequently stopping by to sit in.
Between sets of vocal numbers, the group would shift the energy with some free-form instrumental jams. Well-known Crescent City producer Allen Toussaint caught a show and heard in these numbers a musicianship that rivaled Booker T. & the MG's, the instrumental group that Modeliste recalls "was really burnin' the air up." The next thing they knew they were in the studio recording an album -- minus Gary Brown and Art's brothers -- under a new name.
In 1969 the Meters released a string of nationally successful singles for the small Josie label -- "Sophisticated Cissy," "Live Wire," and "Cissy Strut" chief among them -- which have since been sampled by rap artists as diverse as Del the Funky Homosapien, Run-D.M.C., NWA, Salt "N' Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, and Boogie Down Productions. Each player's parts were balanced against the whole with a deceptive simplicity, which often obscured how unorthodox and involved the song arrangements actually were. At the heart of these down-home, almost painfully funky dance tunes were the intuitive songwriting of Neville and the monstrous drums of the 21-year-old Modeliste.