From the start, one of Porter-Batiste-Stoltz’s strengths was their lack of a keyboard player. The power trio format is fresh territory for funk and PBS has worked wonders with it, keeping the jams spare and sneaky. Instead of recreating the funky Meters with someone else in Art Neville’s place, they effectively made open space a member of the band.
So it seems odd that the PBS’ first official live album and second release overall, features a keyboard player—namely the once (and probably future) Phish member Page McConnell, who also joined the band during this year’s Jazz Fest. Non-Phish fans can rest assured that McConnell loves and understands classic funk. He’s got history with the band (he and drummer Russell Batiste played in the spin-off band Vida Blue), and he doesn’t hog the spotlight. Still, his presence here amounts to fixing what ain’t broke.
The first two tracks are uncut PBS. As with the original Meters, every note matters and the lead instrument is everybody and nobody. Batiste is constantly knocking the beat off-kilter and then snatching it back; Brian Stoltz makes his brittle riffs hit as hard as the solo flights. George Porter, Jr. chooses his bass notes sparingly, every one is a seismic rumble. Both tracks (“Ausnacious” and “Comin’ at Ya”) were on band’s sole studio album, but those versions were blueprints compared to what gets unleashed here.
The band shifts into more familiar mode once McConnell hits town for “I Get High” (originally a solo Porter tune). There’s nothing wrong with his playing per se, but by filling out the open spaces, he takes away from what makes PBS unique—plus, the sounds he favors (acoustic piano and a wah-wah clavinet sound that screams mid-1970s) don’t always have the dirt that the music calls for.
The remainder of the songs are associated either with the funky Meters or spin-off bands (Curtis Mayfield’s “Check Out Your Mind,” a longtime Runnin’ Partners staple), and here McConnell’s presence makes more sense, pushing the familiar jams in new directions. “Message from the Meters” (now called “Message from PBS”) is his best moment, as his clavinet and Stoltz’s guitar build a wall of wah-wah. Any fans of New Orleans funk will already have these songs on countless live tapes. Here’s another one that’s worth owning, even if it’s not the funky step forward that PBS clearly have in them.