If you’re a Meters fan you’re used to seeing the group in different combinations, whether it’s the funky Meters, Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, or once in a blue moon, the original quartet. This year’s model is the Meter Men, with three-quarters of the originals (guitarist Leo Nocentelli, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and bassist George Porter Jr.) and a longtime fan and associate, Phish member Page McConnell taking the keyboard chair in place of Art Neville, who didn’t want to go on the road.
The Meters and Phish may look like a strange combination, since the trademark Meters sound is spare and slinky while a Phish jam hits you with all sorts of information. But McConnell says the two bands are closer than they seem. “All four of us in Phish count the Meters as really big influences. I’m not a big fan of the term ‘jam band’ but they really created that improvisational style of playing and that stretching-out that we do. If Phish hits you with a lot of information, it’s probably because we’re nervous guys. But I appreciate economy too. Even though there are a lot of notes being thrown at you in Phish, some of the nicest moments are when it slows down a little.”
McConnell was still at Goddard College in Vermont when a friend first passed him a Meters CD. “I’d heard the Neville Brothers but not the Meters before—I loved it and it kept growing on me and making me want to dig deeper.” But he didn’t play with any of the band until 1998, when he joined an allstar lineup including Neville, Porter, funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste and Phish’s Mike Gordon, for the Get You a Healin’ CD to benefit the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic—an organization started by his father, Dr. Jack McConnell. “My dad felt that New Orleans musicians were national treasures and needed to be protected and taken care of. I guess that translated for me as well, I love the musicians in that town and want to see their traditionsl preserved.” He later recruited Batiste for his band Vida Blue when Phish was on hiatus then joined Porter, Batiste and Brian Stoltz in PBS. “Brian is an incredibly soulful player, and Russell is just an incredible musician. Playing with him was my first experience with that New Orleans style of drumming, that way they have of turning things around. So I can roll with it a little easier when Zig does it now.”
McConnell did a short tour with the Meter Men last fall, and the Neville influence in his playing was hard to miss. “I wanted to tread extremely lightly on what I considered hallowed ground and was certainly trying, if not to channel Art, to use his playing as a jumping—off point for my own solos. And Leo was careful to teach me the original parts. Now that we’ve done the first few shows and I’m feeling slightly more established with this lineup, I’m thinking I’d like to hear some different textures. I did the first shows with just the B3 organ and digital piano, this time I’m bringing my clavinet and might introduce some synthesizer. I’m assuming they want me to be more comfortable and stretch out.”
Last fall the band invited him to pick a couple songs for the live set, figuring he’d bring in something he’d played with Phish. Instead he chose “Pungee” and “This is My Last Affair,” both deep-track Meters instrumentals. “I’m not even sure they’ve played those tunes live at all. But at least it’s been decades, so it’s practically new material for them, and they were very open to it. Everybody wants to hear things like ‘Cissy Strut’ and we’ll do it, but I also like to dig a little deeper.”
Something even newer may be coming, as plans are underway for the Meter Men to write and record some fresh material. The Nocentelli-Porter-Modeliste trio are planning an album with rotating keyboardists including McConnell—and Neville, which means there’d be new music from the original Meters for the first time since 1977. “That’s in the preliminary stages but I want that to happen, and they want it too. It would add some freshness to what we’re doing now.”
McConnell is the first member of Phish to hit the Fairgrounds since the group’s ill-fated Jazz Fest show in 1996 (He also played the Fest with PBS in 2008, and sat in with Widespread Panic that year). Rumors of a Phish return have floated since then, but something about that ’96 show apparently left a bad smell. “I know there was a problem with fans defecating and fornicating on the lawn. But then, who knows what band those people came to see? But I can see that we bring a particular flavor of fan and we bring enough of them that it can start to feel like something other than Jazz Fest, it can feel like a Phish concert. So we’d love to do it again, but I doubt we’re going to get invited.”