LIVE: The Funky Meters @ College of St. Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, 4/16/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
They say music heals, and that’s true on many levels – but it only goes so far. “I’d love to say y’all look beautiful,” New Orleans icon Art Neville said after being led carefully over the maze of cables surrounding his Hammond B-3, “but I can’t see you!” The keyboardist for the Funky Meters may have been smiling when he said it, but he was telling the truth: Apparently, Art Neville is legally blind. In addition, while he may have walked onstage, anyone sitting on my side of Picotte Recital Hall could see the 77-year old legend was brought to the stage door in a wheelchair.
All that said, Neville was definitely taking the NOLA approach to “If life gives you lemons,” which is to get some rum and some fruit punch and some grenadine and make a Hurricane. “This is great,” he said as he settled down at the keyboard. “I’m gonna play in the wrong key all night!” After finishing off a half-hour medley with Booker T & the MGs’ “Hang ‘Em High,” Neville asked bassist George Porter, Jr. what song they were playing next; when Porter pointed out that the set list was on top of Neville’s organ, Neville crumpled the sheet of paper into a ball, threw it over his shoulder, and started playing a riff that eventually turned into “So Ya Ya.”
Porter just laughed and told the audience, “We on automatic now!”
As it turns out, the Funky Meters on automatic is pretty damn righteous. They’ve been together in various incarnations for over 20 years, and you can see why they are still crowd-gatherers at new-school festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella. They may not be the original jam band (the Grateful Dead get that designation), but the veteran quartet’s ability to take a groove and ride it like Victor Espinoza rode American Pharoah is utterly mind-blowing. And don’t let the word “Funky” throw you off, or that this band is a spin-off of the Meters, whose R&B goodness was communicated to the world through hits like “Cissy Strut” and “Hey Pocky Way.” The Funky Meters can rock you to your knees, as they did during their opening tune when they sang, “The world is a little bit under the weather/And I’m not feeling too good myself!”
That may have been more graveyard humor about Neville’s condition, but Neville wasn’t asking for any quarter, because he was giving none. It may have taken him a little bit to get oriented on his B3, and had to repeat the process when he switched over to Fender Rhodes, but when he got situated, his solos on “Hang ‘Em” and “Cissy Strut” were right on point. And while Neville’s vocals on “Get Out My Life Woman” didn’t have a spit of polish on them, you could say that about the entire band – and that is actually a selling point! The Funky Meters don’t sing as much as they yell and snarl, and you can’t help but yell back, particularly on howls of protest like “People Say” and out-right party anthems like “Fiyo on the Bayou.”
If you want to talk about snarling, you have to talk about Brian Stoltz’s guitar. The former Neville Brothers’ string slinger had left the band for a time to develop his own music, but the maximum attack he brings to every chord and every solo takes the Funky Meters to the next level. He took us into space on “You Got to Change,” and his break on “So Ya Ya” was overflowing with joy.
Porter may have the biggest bass amp in the history of music, but you need something that big to transmit a sound that deep and that phat. At age 68, Porter hasn’t dropped even half a step, and you would be hard pressed to find a bassist half his age with that mix of power and creativity.
Terrance Houston holds down the drums for the Funky Meters nowadays, and Art Neville has shoes older than he is; even so, Houston held down the foundation and helped build bridges for the band, which didn’t play tunes as much as they strung together multi-minute medleys. Houston got a huge pop of his own for his “blindfolded” solo on “Cissy Strut.”
As I said, music heals, but it doesn’t heal everything. Even so, the wicked grins the Funky Meters wore – Neville included, who enthused at one point, “I feel like Ray Charles…” – showed that they were more than willing to tackle both age and infirmity to ride that lip-smacking-delicious groove one more time, with or without an audience. Happily, we got to watch it happen.