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To get the scoop on the Meters, you need to talk to the right people. Ask an aficionado of early New Orleans blues rock and he'll tell you that the Meters were, with Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey, the originators of this timeless sound. Ask a Neville Brothers fan and he'll tell you the Meters were the Art Neville group whose songs "Fire on the Bayou" and "Hey Pocky Way" the Nevilles ultimately turned into humid funk classics. Ask a modern-day funk player such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, and he'll point out that the Meters were a major influence on his work.
But ask George Porter, bassist for the Meters since the mid-Sixties, and he'll claim that he's at a loss for words: "I've never been able to answer that," he says. Push a little harder, however, and Porter will sketch for you the differences between the band's groove and the more hyper funkadelia created by Meters contemporary George Clinton. "We were definitely laid-back," he notes. "Patient would be a cool way to describe it."
The same word applies to the Meters' approach to their career. The original group, consisting of keyboardist Art Neville, bassist Porter, drummer Zig Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, was formed in 1963 and took the Meters name five years later. In 1972 the band signed to the Reprise label and began issuing one heralded recording after another, 1972's Cabbage Alley, 1974's Rejuvenation and 1975's Fire on the Bayou among them. Following the addition of Art's brother Cyrille to the lineup and a tour as the Rolling Stones' opening act, the Meters disbanded. The two Nevilles, supplemented by two more brothers (Aaron and Charles), went on to make history as a family band, while Porter became a coveted sideman, working with Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Patti La Belle, Taj Mahal, Lowell George, Paul McCartney and an eye-popping list of others.
In 1988, Porter, Nocentelli and Art Neville (joined by new drummer David Russell Batiste) reactivated the Meters--or the Funky Meters, as the act is sometimes called. Since then, Porter has kept busy with additional pursuits, including the 1990 solo album Runnin' Partner, released on the Rounder imprint, an extensive 1993 tour in support of David Byrne, and studio work on an upcoming Harry Connick Jr. disc. But he's also proved his commitment to the Meters. This past November, when Nocentelli threw in the towel, Porter and company hired former Neville Brothers guitarist Brian Stoltz and kept on going.
The Meters' music still retains its greasy power, and the assistance of Stoltz has added a revitalizing freshness to the previous spirit of camaraderie and unity. Even though the Neville Brothers built their reputation in part on Meters tunes, Porter insists he has no hard feelings. He laughingly adds that, prior to five years ago, when he began a life of sobriety, he felt very little at all. "At the time, I was so high," he concedes. "I guess I really didn't have any problems with it at all, due to the numbing effect my habits had on my brain. But by the time [the Neville Brothers' 1989 album] Yellow Moon came out, I was straightened up and glad to see the Meters' creative influences in that organization."
Likewise, Porter claims he isn't bothered by how little recognition the Meters have received from the general public. "That's just a part of the system here in the States," he says. "Back in the days when we were out there playing and doing our early stuff, the radio stations were still pretty separate. We were a black R&B group that didn't get airplay on the black stations because they thought our music was too white, and the white stations wouldn't play us because they knew we were black. The fact is, radio stations seem to own the world. They have a very selective way of determining what music is played where. If you don't have the bucks to go in there and get something on the air, it won't get played."
The Meters' music currently heard on the radio is often unauthorized. According to Porter, rappers have been regularly sampling cool Meters grooves without giving the instrumentalists who developed them any compensation. "Within the last four or five years, this sampling thing has really gotten out of hand," he claims. "Those rappers don't ever give anybody any credit. They just take your music and use it and call it creative writing when they put some words on top of it. But it's just outright stealing. We've been able to successfully run down about 16 of the known 32 samples of our music that are out there. Some of them still aren't settled. But with the court system, they can tie things up for years, and by the time you get them in court, they claim that they are broke. So you may win a judgment, but you still will never see any of it."
Fortunately, the band's stylings can also be caught live. The Meters rarely play outside New Orleans, but when they do they crank out new material and classic tunes such as "Pungee" and "Nine to Five" with as much passion as ever. When asked to describe why the music is so strong, Porter says, "I'd have to use a quote from Art. `The funk stops here.'"
The Meters. 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, March 1-3, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $18.90, 290-