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Drop-dead drum-and-bass duo reunite

By Greg Cahill

IN THE ANNALS of popular music, the Meters are to R&B what the Beatles were to pop--innovative players who helped to define a magical musical moment. In the case of the Meters, their offering was a spicy brand of sanctified, syncopated New Orleans soul/funk that between the late-'60s and mid-'70s won the admiration of the Rolling Stones and earned recording sessions with such Crescent City royalty as Dr. John.

For fans of New Orleans R&B, news that the Meters rhythm section of Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (drums) and George Porter Jr. (bass)--a tight groove machine so well-oiled that they play with near-telepathic precision--are reuniting for the first tour in nearly two decades understandably is something of a major happening.

A reunion with former bandmates Art Neville (organ) and Leo Nocentelli (guitar) seems unlikely anytime soon, but rest assured that Modeliste and Porter have plenty of Meters mojo to go around. "You knew you'd arrived at Meters music when an off-road detour led you into some murky, backwoods swampland where Zigaboo's second-line drum rhythms put a hump in your back," opined writer A. Scott Galloway.

The roots run deep for these two cousins. Porter and Modeliste grew up a few blocks apart on the mean streets of New Orleans and have played music together since age seven. "Zig's brother was my piano teacher," Porter recalls, during a phone interview from his New Orleans home. "As teenagers, when I first moved uptown off of Broad Street across from the Nevilles' home, we had a little garage band. We had like four drummers playing turned-over pots and rubber tubs. I had an acoustic guitar. I remember it happening, but I don't remember what we played," he adds with a laugh.

Back in those days, folks seldom ventured into each other's neighborhoods, though that didn't keep Porter and Modeliste apart. Their houses were separated by James Alley, a notorious walkway lined with gin joints and jazz clubs. "Then there were the beer-guzzling thugs that controlled that strip," Porter adds.

"The funniest part about it was that the neighborhood was directly across the street from Parish Prison, the local jail house. But there was more stuff going on at that corner than anywhere else in the city, yet the police rarely did anything about it."

As for the legendary chemistry between the two, Porter says it was no mystery. "Zig was such a strong in-the-pocket groove player that it was very easy to play with him. There's a strong drum-and-bass pattern that holds the pocket really well.

"Everything else is balls to the wall."

Says Modeliste, "I felt blessed to be with some guys that had their own thoughts about the music and could play really good, and who then wrapped all their talent around me. That made it really easy to do what I had to do."

REMINISCENT of a Southern-fried version of Booker T & the MGs, the Meters made an indelible mark on pop music. James Brown, WAR, the Band of Gypsys, Bob Marley, the Chambers Brothers, Rufus Thomas, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana--many of the greats sipped from the soulful spring supplied by the Meters.

Their influence is still being felt. Since the split up of the original Meters, Modeliste has continued to lead his own Oakland-based band. Porter has released three solo albums, and toured with Art Neville as part of the Funky Meters. He also has become a highly sought-after session player, recording three albums with Tori Amos, one album each with David Byrne and Robbie Robertson, and several more with numerous top blues players. "The last 20 years have been very busy," says Porter. "But I've accomplished a lot of things since the original Meters broke up."

Any chance Neville and Nocentelli will join up for a full-blown Meters reunion? "There are a lot of elements working against that," Porter sighs, "but I never say never."


Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter perform Thursday, July 29, at 9 p.m., at the Powerhouse Brewing Co., 268 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol. Tickets are $30 (and include a New Orleans-style BBQ at 6 p.m.). For details, call 829-9171.

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From the July 22-28, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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