With the passage of decades, the importance of The Meters, who broke out nationally at a period when their hometown's influence on popular music seemed to be diminishing, seems more obvious than ever. With five hits in 1969 alone, each an excercise in uncompromising, hard funk, The Meters' astonishing musical telepathy ensured the band's place in the evolution of soul into funk and the continued vitality of New Orleans music. Bill Dahl's excellent notes for the Sundazed label's remaster of the band's 1969 debut outline the history leading up to this seminal album. The band was formed by Art Neville during 1966 - 67, following Art's participation in a tour with Aaron Neville when Aaron's late '66 single "Tell It Like It Is" became a unexpected smash hit. Back in New Orleans after the tour Art gathered his band under the name Neville Sounds, but original members Aaron and Cyril Neville, as well as a sax player, were dropped when the group was offered a residency by a club owner who could only accomidate a quartet. Minus any other Nevilles, the name was changed to The Meters. The ridiculously prolific producer/writer/auteur Allen Toussaint and his business partner Marshall Sehorn caught the quartet - Art, Leo Nocentelli, Joseph 'Ziggy' Modeliste, and George Porter - at a club one night and by late '67 the pair would regularly employ The Meters on sessions for Sansu Enterprises, noticeably deepening the groove on records by Lee Dorsey, Willie West, Betty Harris, and many others, including Neville brothers Cyril and Aaron.
The Meters may have been central to the evolution of funk, but founder Art Neville's roots in N.O.'s indigenous music meant both experience and a deep sense of N.O.'s rich musical history. Art had been making records since he was a teenager with The Hawketts, debuting on the 1955 Chess single "Mardi Gras Mambo." The following year he was signed to Specialty (first as session pianist/vocalist - that's him singing behind Little Richard on "The Girl Can't Help It")just as rock 'n' roll hit big, and his early solo singles like "Ooh Whee Baby" (a terrific post-Little Richard rocker) are available on various compilations and collected on a Specialty CD. Following a stint in the Navy, Art was back recording, signed in 1961 to Joe Banashek's Instant Records(see the Art & Aaron Neville 2-CD set "Brother To Brother" on the Fuel 2000 label). More singles were recorded - and, less frequently, issued, on Instant and Cinderella through the mid-60s. And on his last two "solo" singles, produced by Toussaint for Sansu in December 1967, Art was backed by The Meters.
The prolific Eddie Bocage, producing his own raw, hot dance records - and other New Orleans legends - may have contributed to the increasingly rhythm-centered approach during the same period, but The Meters clearly had the vision and virtuosity to lead New Orleans' r & b to the next stage, with the sort of chemistry that makes all truly great bands more than the sum of their parts. That intuitive and seemingly effortless interplay is evident right out of the gate, on Art's (backed by the other Meters) magnificent version/re-invention of "Bo Diddley", recorded for Sansu and best heard in a slightly longer master included on the Sundazed comp "Get Low Down! The Soul Of New Orleans 1965 - 67"), a three minute marvel of unstoppable rhythmic drive, jazzy yet tight interplay. The Meters were masters of inventive rhythmic variations contained within two or three-minute song structures. The key to their sound was drummer Modeliste. Unlike, say, the equisite Al Jackson of the MG's, Modeliste was not content to hold down an understated groove, adding subtle fills and accents. Rooted in a century of seminal early jazz, r & b and rock 'n' roll, with parade bands and the syncopated second line encoded in his DNA, and inspired by master drummers like Earl Palmer, John Boudreaux, and June Gardner, Joseph Modeliste made his drum kit as much a lead instrument as the guitar or organ ever was. At his best his perfomances build syncopated, inventive variations on rhythm patterns stated at the song's beginning, then held down by bassist Porter or guitarist Nocentelli; sometimes the 'beat' becomes almost implicit, as melody does in bop, Modeliste darting around it, accenting, leaving spaces, adding cross-rhythms, but never straying from that pulse. And Modeliste plays without a scintilla of gratuitous flash.
By 1968 The Meters were ready to emerge from backup to center stage, and with Toussaint's encouragement signed to Josie Records. Their first single, the slinky, slow simmering funk gem titled 'Sophisticated Cissy' was released November 1968 and had broke out nationally by January 1969. Two more hits, the massive "Cissy Strut" (March 1969) and "Ease Back" (July 1969) soon followed, and all were included on "The Meters", issued that spring.
This is bare-bones funk, with a full-bodied sound and approach that fits a variety of material. Influences include Booker T. & The MG's, whose lineup originally suggested a model to Art Neville, and perhaps the MG's influence is more noticeable here than on susequent albums. Other sources include Wes Montgomery - Nocentelli's warm tone and jazzy playing turn a middle of the road hit like "The Look Of Love," (a bonus track included here) into a warm and gorgeous late-night groove. James Brown's band is another influence, and Nocentelli's chicken scratch guitar permeates these tracks, likely giving "SSehorn's Farm" its title. And the album closes with a nod to Sly Stone, whose influence would become even more evident within a couple years as Nocentelli adds wah-wah and other effects and Porter starts popping his bass (check "Gettin' Funkier All The Time" from their 1972 debut for Reprise, "Cabbage Alley"). Other highlights here include "Here Comes The Meter Man" which ends on a deliciously hard-yet-understated 25-second drum break. "Live Wire" features a galloping rhythm, and "Cardova" (at 4:32 the longest track on the group's Josie albums) starts with some creative interplay between Porter (whose deep opening groove will rattle your windows) and Modeliste, with Neville adding rhythmic organ fills and Nocentelli some splendidly dry guitar. The second bonus track, "Soul Machine" (also available on "Zony Mash") crackles and percolates, and features some warm sax starting around the halfway mark.
With each album, the band would slowly integrate vocals, but this debut features a single grunt at the start of the classic "Cissy Strut" (their biggest hit). By the time of their third ("Struttin') album and the final Josie singles that are collected on "Zony Mash," the group vocals, and leads by Art and Leo, would become permanent features of their musical arsenal. But "The Meters" is the minimalist blueprint, with a range of moods linked by a raw, dense sound recorded at Cosimo Matassa's. I happen to think their early style reached its sonic and musical peak on the second album, "Look-Ka Py Py", ironically recorded not in New Orleans but in Atlanta. Forget the compilations - The Meters continued to evolve and experiment until their breakup following 1977's "New Directions." Sundazed has typically outdone all previous remasters with warm, rich, and detailed sound - you're in the studio with four master musicians, and the music pulsates and breathes. Like all mortals, The Meters made the occasional mistep, mostly near the end of their career, but their ten studio albums, all available on Sundazed, are collectively a singular contribution to New Orleans (and American) funk, soul, and rock and roll.