Funk Revisited: Meters Magic Rebounds on Rounder

For those of you who have met with nothing but frustration in hunting down old Meters records, fret no more! Rounder Records has thrown a couple morsels of Meters out to the hungry masses. No more futile treks to used record stores who are either “just out of that one” or who might charge $30 for a French import. No more trying to borrow a copy from a friend of a friend who knows somebody with a scratched-up record that skips on the best tune because it was played so much fifteen years ago. No more settling for a few Meters covers of Mardi Gras songs on a compilation tape, the New Orleans equivalent of overplayed Christmas music. No, now you can have your very own, easy-to-find old Meters material on CD.

Look-Ka Py Py is the best of the two new releases. A reissue from 1968, this is essential Meters. This is the band at their rawest, most primitive funk groove, with strong cuts from top to bottom and few disappointments.

Good Old Funky Music consists of previously unreleased material the group recorded from 1968 to the mid-’70s. Although the band is a little disappointed in not being part of the selection process for this collection, saying that some of the cuts were never finished properly or were just bad, it’s still a diverse collection and contains material any Meters fan cannot do without.

With the success of the Neville Brothers and the subsequent Meters reunion, local interest in the group has skyrocketed. Although they’ve always maintained a cult following in New Orleans, as well as throughout the country and Europe, the time was ripe for a full-fledged Meters comeback.

And come back they certainly have. Drawing one of the largest crowds at Jazz Fest this year, and packing Tipitina’s to the hilt, the fathers of New Orleans funk from the 13th Ward are back and better than ever. Rounder Records has answered the call just in time.

Look-Ka Py Py starts off in a funky groove and never lets up. This is the original Meters sound: pre-vocals, unpolished, simple but tight, and relentless funky. This is the precursor to all that is now New Orleans funk.

The first cut and title track originated from a burnt piston in the engine of their van. It kept going “ooka-she-uh, ooka-she-ah.” The guys started singing along to it, adding “bom she bom bom,” while beating on the seats and roof. They worked it all out right there in the van.

This tune became the first of a series of four hit singles for the band in 1968. Add to the chants the percussive funk riffs of guitarist Leo Nocentelli, the syncopated accents of drummer Zig Modeliste, the weaving bass riffs of George Porter, Jr. and the rich Hammond B-3 organ of Art Neville, and you’ve got pure, unadulterated Meters funk.

The band proves itself to be a master of understatement, content to sit back on a groove with simple syncopated riffs, tight in exception. They start with a basic rhythmic road map, with each instrument weaving through the groove in its own way, meeting up at the other end to play the same parts over each other.

“Little Old Money Maker” is another favorite from this album. It’s an upbeat tune that builds to a funky climax. The album contains some down-and-dirty stuff too, like “Funky Miracle” and “Yeah, You’re Right” (that perennial New Orleans anthem).

Underneath the funk are hints of the ’50s New Orleans R&B from which the band evolved and the psychedelic wah-wah guitar of the ’60s. “This Is My Last Affair,” with a cheesy organ melody, sounds like a cross between psychedelic pop, Motown soul, and of course the “New Orleans Sound.” “Oh, Calcutta!,” the only song the group didn’t write, has a slow dramatic organ melody with the band grooving behind. It sounds like a theme song from a ’60s sitcom.

Other highlights include “Mob,” which alternates between syncopated layers of riffs to form a straight rock beat. “9 ’til 5” has four different parts without any particular structure, from a festive, simple vamp to a busy energetic beat, to laid-back syncopation and then back again. The album ends with “Dry Spell,” which begins like a patriotic anthem of sorts and eases into a slow groove.

Good Old Funky Music is not as consistently strong a release, but its selections are more diverse. Cyril Neville had joined the original four-some on this collection for the later cuts, and adds depth with percussion and vocals.

The title cut is in-your-face funk, but the highlight of both releases is the tune “Keep on Marching,” with its hard-driving pulse overlapped with fuzz-tone bass notes, synthesized hard-edged slap notes and echoing guitar effects. This, folks, is wicked funk, Herbie Hancock style. The Meters’ influence is especially apparent on this tune, with a driving big-beat pulse shining through, and every instrument being treated as percussion.

But funk’s not the group’s only forté: “The Riddle Song” and “What More Can I Do?” are sweet soul ballads that hold their own with the best of ’em. Although the other cuts aren’t quite up to the cuts mentioned, they do cover a lot of ground. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Medley” is a cheesy but fun collection of ’50s rock and R&B, including the standard “Something You Got.” Art plays some tasty acoustic piano fills, Cyril shows off his soulful vocals and Leo plays a straight-ahead rock blues solo. If not for the calibre of the musicianship, this might come across as a Bourbon Street cover band doing the audience’s requests medley style.

If these two albums aren’t enough to satisfy your lust for Meters material, Rounder Records has about 20 more cuts of previously unreleased material from the old days that shoul be out before the year’s end.

If these current releases do well, look forward to more stuff from the Meters’ heyday from Warner. Also, the band is now writing songs and plans to go into the studio in December, so you can look forward to new Meters material around March or so. Until then, you’ll just have to satisfy your appetite with these.