Creeping above the sound of the crowd, the whispers of cymbals emerge, followed by a few muted plucks of the guitar. The drums erupt with pointed blows to the snare as the familiar sound of soulful bass oozes in, launching the Pearl Street All-Stars into the first of many grooves for the night.
The All-Stars, who headlined the Mountain Sun Funky Times Benefit at the Boulder Theatre on Feb. 1, in many ways owe the formation of the foundations of funk and improvisational music to their collaborating bandmate, George Porter, Jr.
The artists, assembled at the fundraiser to benefit Boulder County’s non-profit community radio station KGNU, are almost all nearly half Porter’s age — the group featured Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboard, Adam Smirnoff on guitar, Art Edmaiston on saxophone, Dennis Marion on trumpet, John Statton on drums and Kim Dawson performing vocals, as well as Porter on bass.
Regarded as the preeminent bassist in funk music, Porter was surrounded by music from a young age in New Orleans, initially learning guitar and eventually making the full-time switch to the bass.
“Playing the bass was kind of automatic because I was playing acoustic guitar and taking lessons from the age of eight to about 10,” Porter said. “The teacher who was teaching me was showing me how to play the classical formula, so I was playing bass lines and guitar parts all at the same time. It was pretty much an automatic.”
After studying music for a few years, Porter began to play gigs at local clubs in New Orleans. At the Dew Drop Inn, a prominent musician, Earl King, took Porter under his wing and advised him on how to navigate the musical landscape of New Orleans.
“Earl would be very instrumental in talking to me and telling me the do’s and don’ts of being around those upper-class guys that I was hanging around with,” Porter said. “The upper-class back then would have to have been the guys that hung around the Dew Drop after hours, which was pretty much everyone in the New Orleans music scene. It was the Earl King’s, the Eddie Bo’s, the Ernie K-Doe’s.”
As the Pearl Street All-Stars masterfully navigate through a rendition of ‘Squeezin’, George moves toward his microphone, striking the bass with hard plucks of his fingers, moving into one of his many solos. His head shakes side-to-side, mouth slightly agape and eyes wide as he strikes each chord. He looks towards Adam Smirnoff on guitar, who joins in, helping to create a crescendo that George has meticulously built. The rest of the band follows suit, resulting in a soulful breakdown that resonates throughout the theater.
“Music that was moving the world”
Eventually, Porter was invited to play a gig with Art Neville, who needed a lead guitarist. Porter considered himself a rhythm guitarist, but agreed to play.
“When I got there, Art needed a lead guitar, and I wasn’t very good at that,” Porter said. “I remember at the end of the evening, when he paid me, he told me, ‘Man, you’re the worst guitar player I ever seen!’”
Despite his harsh words, Porter must have impressed Neville because he was invited to join a band that Neville was assembling.
“The next time I saw Art was shortly after he came off the road with Aaron [Neville], supporting the ‘Tell it Like it Is’ record,” Porter said. “He asked me if I wanted to join a band that he was putting together.”
Porter joined Neville, who played keys, and Leo Nocentelli on guitar, Gary Brown on saxophone and a drummer named Glenn, who would soon be replaced by Zigaboo Modeliste. Eventually dropping Gary Brown, the group became known as The Meters, playing six nights a week in clubs throughout New Orleans.
“I knew what we were doing as an instrumental band couldn’t be compared to,” Porter said. “We were in a league by ourselves. We owned that neighborhood. The only bands playing instrumental music then were considered jazz bands, and we weren’t a jazz band. We were playing instrumental music that was moving the world.”
The Meters took to the road, playing wherever the band’s management sent them.
“He packaged us up and sent us on the road and we were on the road. That was it,” Porter said. “We had very little, if any, control over where we went, how we went and when we went. It was the way the world was ruled in those days.”
During those shows, The Meters drew heavily on improvisational jamming as a means of filling their allotted sets.
“When we played shows back in those days, we played four-hour gigs,” Porter said. “So when you have to play a four-hour gig and have one album out, you have to learn how to do other things with those songs.”
With very little control over the band’s management, The Meters eventually dissolved in 1977. Porter has since continued to play an impressive number of shows, creating his own bands and configurations, often times performing rearranged Meters songs.
The Pearl Street All-Stars return to the stage for an encore. George, leading the group, plays a bass line, as the keys, saxophone and drums roll in, and for a moment it seems as though the band is lost, moving in separate directions. George navigates towards Adam Smirnoff on guitar and says something in his ear as Adam adds chops and falls in-sync. Cohesion is achieved, and George moves to the microphone.
The first jam band
Even though The Meters are no longer recording as a group, Porter continues to play shows with Neville, Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste. In one of the recent incarnations of The Meters, the former Meters enlisted keyboardist Paige McConnell, of Phish, to tour with them.
“When the three of us decided that we were going to do these gigs and it had been determined that Art [Neville] definitely wasn’t going to play, buyers were willing to take the three of us with a different keyboard player,” Porter said. “Paige does an absolutely great job of being the keyboard player that’s needed to represent the songs we’ve chosen to play.”
Porter’s contributions to funk changed the trajectory of improvisational music, allowing bands like McConnell’s Phish to thrive commercially. But despite laying the groundwork for bands like Phish, widespread commercial success has evaded George and The Meters.
“I think The Meters might have been the first jam band,” Porter said. “I’m not sure, but it seemed to me that most of the music I saw [in the 1960’s] was other bands playing songs just as they were on record.”
As The Pearl Street All-Stars play the closing notes of their set, George teases the bass line to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady,’ crouching, as if ready to jump back into another groove. The music fades and the lights come up. George removes his bass, grinning.
“When you’ve got musicians that are playing together and listening to each other, then the music can go anywhere it needs to go,” Porter said. “If one guy takes off into a different direction, either two things can happen: you go with him, or you stop playing. We never stop playing.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Luke Ilardo at firstname.lastname@example.org