Among the multitudes of events and innumerable shows and late-night affairs that make up New Orleans’ annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, the meat of the celebration comes with the various sit ins—both planned and spontaneous—that occur throughout the festival’s two weeks. George Porter Jr. is no stranger to both kinds of collaborations, having lend his bass to countless supergroups, one-off jams and impromptu musical get-togethers throughout his storied career—not to mention his work with legendary NOLA funk godfathers The Meters, plus the offshoots Funky Meters and Meter Men, along with his current band Runnin’ Pardners.
This year’s Jazz Fest was no different for the Crescent City native, as Porter kicked things off with a show with all four original members of The Meters featuring special guests Warren Haynes, Grace Potter, Ivan Neville, Trombone Shorty and more before joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers onstage for their encore with fellow Meter Zigaboo Modeliste. We caught up with Porter to reflect on those two experiences, to describe how he feels about the current state of Jazz Fest and his upcoming plans in a career that shows no signs of slowing down.
You performed a Jazz Fest set with the original Meters quartet and all those guests. What was it like to be back up there again with the original four guys?
With that band, at the end of the evening, it’s always like, “Wow. We did it again.” [Laughs] You never know. This time, Leo couldn’t make the rehearsals, because he was off rehearsing for his solo performance for Jazz Fest this year. So, because one of the primary players wasn’t there, everything’s subject to change. And it did. One of the things this band seems to do very well is land on its feet when things happen that isn’t planned. That’s kind of like our history as a band. We never was an overly rehearsed, well-rehearsed band at all. Back in the older days we played so much that we just knew each other, you know?
When you guys do reunion shows like this, do you try to get several rehearsals in now?
No, we just do one rehearsal and that’s mostly to rehearse heads and tails—how we gonna start it and how we gonna end it.
So you get done with a show like that and you say, “Wow. We did it again.” Do you think you guys will ever stop doing these kind of one-off reunion shows?
I never say never. You just never know. It’s a complicated thing. I wish there was a simpler answer to why we just haven’t been able to, say, pull off a run of dates or something like that, or take three months and do as much work as we can in three months. It’s just never been able to happen. Some of that is my schedule doesn’t allow for it, because Runnin’ Pardners play a lot. Also—have bass, will travel—I play with tons of other bands. I’m kind of the busy, busy, busy one in the band. To pull off a successful three-month run, I would have to knock a hole into my schedule. It wouldn’t be something that I would feel bad about doing, but, you know, I got four other guys who’ve been in my band for 20-plus years, so I don’t like putting them out of work for three months. It could happen, and more than likely if something like that were to happen, I would definitely go out and do a Meter tour if it was to come around.
Do you think the other three guys would be into it as well?
That’s the question that I never attempt to answer for them [laughs]. That would be something that you would have to ask each one of those guys.
Speaking of playing in different bands, you followed up the Meters show with a Funky Meters gig a week later at Tipitina’s. What are the differences between playing with the original four Meters guys and then doing a Funky Meters show?
I think Funky Meters isn’t strictly a Meter band. We get off the reservation and play other stuff. We have Brian Stoltz, a wonderful guitar player, songwriter in his own right, so we tend to allow him some space, some liberties to show his worth as a member of the band. And after Russell Batiste left the band a couple years ago, we replaced him with Runnin’ Pardners drummer Terence Houston, who’s also very musical and a showman sort of a drummer but very, very precise and we let him show his worth. None of the Meter bands do stuff like that but the Funky Meters. We tend to go from song to song. We start our set and the gig is over when we stop playing. It’s not like we play a song, end it. Play a song, end it. Play a song, end it. There’s not a whole bunch of chatter in between our songs, because we go music to music. That comes from being able to ad-lib your way into the next piece of music. With the original Meters—and the reasoning behind it is because we don’t play that much together—we have to start and finish songs. That’s natural.
More on Jazz Fest—you came onstage with Ziggy during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set and played “Give it Away” for their encore. How did that come about?
I was about to leave my house to go out to stage call, and I got a call from my manager asking if I had anything immediately after my set, just making sure I had nowhere else to be. I said, “No, why?” He said, “Well, the Chili Peppers’ management reached out. They wanted to see if you and Ziggy wanna come out and sit in on the encore.” I said, “Oh, cool.” Their drummer had been at two different gigs last weekend. He was at a Meter Men show, which is Zigaboo, myself, Ivan [Neville], and Tony Hall, at the House of Blues, I also saw him at Trombone Shorty’s show. So, we had touched base with him twice. We actually got to play that Sunday. So he might have been the one instrumental in making that happen.
Had you met the members of RHCP before?
Yeah, the first time they played New Orleans at the Voodoo Festival like 10 years ago actually. The buyers of the festival were instrumental in putting that together. The original Meters played on one stage and they were headlining on the big stage. At the end of our set, we were told that the Chili Peppers wanted the whole Meter band—all four of us—to come over and sit in on the encore of their set. But that particular day we played a Meters song, “Hand Clapping Song.” That’s the song they wanted to play. That was a fun jam session. I think you can find that out there on YouTube somewhere.
What was it like when two bands like that come together—from different generations, but both pretty steeped in funk?
When a host band invites another whole band to come sit in, now you’ve doubled the number of players on stage, except for the guy in front. What makes it happen and makes it magical is when well over two-thirds of the band is paying attention to each other. Everybody is playing off of each other and stuff. That jam session had a few train wrecks, but it was the kind of wreck that didn’t damage any of the engines. It was a couple of musical clashes, just because of some players that wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around them. That happened in our camp more than in their camp. I’m always the kind of player where, if I’m going to sit in on somebody, I’m not going there trying to take the gig. I’m trying to plug into whatever it is they’re doing and be a part of what it is they’re doing. I don’t need to bring my ego to the table.
In that vein—as opposed to sitting in with other people, what about when it’s a supergroup that comes together? Kind of like with the Voodoo Dead show, with Steve Kimock, Jackie Greene and Jeff Chimenti from the Grateful Dead world along with you, Papa Mali and Cyril Neville from the New Orleans camp.
I’ve played with Steve and John Morgan [Kimock] many times before. We sort of have a feel as a rhythm section. I did a few songs with them last year when Bill Kreutzmann was in town with his band. The music that they’re going after—and there’s a bunch of songs I didn’t know— it’s sort of like, “Pay attention.” We are going to have a somewhat of a rehearsal, but it’s going to be more like rehearsing how the songs are going to begin and how they’re going to end. With the Dead jam songs, you know, it’s going to be exactly what it is. It’s an open jam song. You have to pay attention and play.
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