The Meters are in the DNA of all New Orleans funk, but it’s only natural that with time it becomes less obvious. The bands that they influenced have influenced bands, and they’ve influenced bands, and so on. A biblical string of “begats” stand between many modern funk bands and the band that inspired them, whether they know it or not. Enter George Porter, Jr. with a lesson.
In the liner notes to Can’t Beat the Funk!, Porter writes, “There are some 25 or so songs that have really stuck with me, and I always wanted to hear them played again.” He revives 14 of those 25, not playing them as the Meters would have when they were cut between 1968 and 1972, but as he and his Runnin’ Pardners feel them today. That doesn’t mean radical changes. Once you get through the prog-rock opening of “Yeah You’re Right,” the song settles into a slinky, funky groove driven by Brint Anderson’s guitar, played as if he’d been reading Leo’s mail. The instrumentation’s pretty much the same, but Khris Royal’s sax finds its place in the mix since he’s a Runnin’ Pardners. Mike Lemmler relies heavily on the Hammond B3, but there are synth solos as well as organ solos. As a result, the versions are faithful without being too reverent.
Can’t Beat the Funk! isn’t the exercise in obscurity that its premise suggests it might be. Four tracks appear on Rhino’s two-disc Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology, and two—“Ease Back” and “6V6 LA”—date back to the Meters’ self-titled debut album. The album leans strongly but not exclusively toward instrumentals. Thankfully, the lengths stay civilized and don’t stretch out like the Meters can live. Porter gives himself and the band room to move with four songs that pass the five minute mark, but they get everything done in under six. In that length, solos build excitement and/or tension without becoming part of the sonic wallpaper. Royal particularly is a star throughout, whether on his slow, smoky solo in “The Mob” or his light-footed expression of the melody on “6V6 LA.”
There’s no stealing the spotlight from Porter, though. He does nothing showy and never grabs for it, but his agile, rippling bass is a wonder—in constant motion, supporting soloists while provoking them to go further, and solidifying the groove with drummer Terrence Houston. When he sings “Stay Away,” he summons requisite conviction, and he captures the essential goofiness of “Doin’ the Dirt.” But just as he has throughout his career, what Porter does best on Can’t Beat the Funk! is let the band and the song speak.
If nothing else, the album performs a public service. Enough time has passed for a Meters canon to emerge, one created by DJ choices, compiler choices and live performances by the Meters, the Funky Meters and the members of the Meters on their own. With Can’t Beat the Funk!, Porter reminds us that there’s more to the band than its canonical works.