Mardi Gras With The Meters

Hey, la-bàs, crawfish étouffée!

From the city of Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, the Neville family in all their incarnations, and Dr. John come The Meters.

They embody all the fissionable material glowing in the reactor soul of the Crescent City. Deep, insistent grooves; “second-line” dance rhythms – a New Orleans funeral step without the dead body and markedly more uptempo; elements of Chicago and West Coast Funk guitars; habanero inflections; absurdist lyrics, and guttural mutterings in between combine to give this under-appreciated band a sound unlike any other on earth.

Through it all, they are Rock-N-Roll.

They honed their chops as backup band to Allen Toussaint. (Toussaint’s mother was Naomi Neville.) The Meters – first consisting of Art Neville, George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste – recorded and toured from 1965 through 1977, then re-formed as The Funky Meters in 1989 and are currently at work.

Related: Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking”

Brian Stoltz and Russell Batiste replaced Nocentelli and Modeliste, who have enjoyed solid solo careers. (Ziggy Modeliste’s drumming is the model for almost every Hip-Hop number you’ve ever heard.) The last names of the various band members reflect the Creole culture of New Orleans: African American, Spanish, French, Sicilian, Anglo and German somewhere in the lineage.

The descriptives for the songs below are short and sweet. The tracks are made for dancing, laughing and drinking.

Grab you-self an absinthe frappe or Sazerac – maybe six or seven – and turn it up. Ain’t nothin’ funkier than The Meters. Beaucoup crasseux. King cake next day for hangover.

Mardi Gras Mambo

The Meters
The Best Of The Meters (1975)

Written in 1953, after its first incarnation as a Country & Western number, (odd as that sounds), in 1954 “Mardi Gras Mambo” fell into the hands of The Hawkettes. In The Hawkettes was 17-year-old Art Neville who would later help form The Meters. For decades proto-Meter groups, The Meters themselves and the legacy Funky Meters would perform and record the Dixieland-based, musical prayer to Fat Tuesday.

It’s a revel and a ramble you would be hard pressed not to hear during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. The Meters keep it funky but lurking in the swirling colors of “Mardi Gras Mambo” is plenty of swing and their irrepressible sense of the absurd.

In Gert Town
Where the cats all meet
There’s a Mardi Gras mambo
With a beat
Join the Chief with the Zulu gang
And truck on down
Where the mambo’s swing

Look-Ka Py Py

The Meters
Look-Ka Py Py (1969)

Look no further for the origins of Rap and Hip-Hop. You’ve found them. Yes, the year is 1969 and yes, the conventional wisdom is that Rap rose from the streets of The Bronx or L.A. in the late-’70s, but New Orleans had it first.

The percussive mouth sounds; the strolling, lolling beats; the guitar grooves (once mixed well forward in these kinds of older Funk tracks); a chorus of non-verbal harmonies… they’re all present in “Look-Ka Py Py.”

“You can celebrate anything you want,” The Beatles sang in “I Dig A Pony.” In the same song they also sang, “You can syndicate any boat you row…” Consider this song syndicated and celebrated. A good song to start getting busy to.

The Meters pulled in all the influences NOLA had to offer in ’69 and tumbled them together to create this easy-going, sexy song. And, they played their own instruments and didn’t track and triple track or call on a computer. Indeed, “Look-Ka Py Py” is still being sampled today. The band is as tight as… you pick your metaphor.

They All Asked For You

The Meters
Fire On The Bayou (1975)

Let’s get some business out of the way. The official title is “They All Asked For You.” However, the song as sung says: They all axed for you. That’s a bit of self-deprecating humor, and humor is the watchword for this track. It spins on its ear proper society’s convention of telling a white lie to someone who missed a fancy soiree, “They all asked for you.” Polite and silly.

The Meters set up a series of “social events” – first at the Audubon Zoo where: The monkeys asked, the tigers asked, and the elephant asked me too. The song then moves on to the sky where: the ducks asked, the eagles asked, etc. Finally, there is the deep blue sea, as well: The sharks asked, etc.

The song gambols and galumphs, a comedy in three acts meant to insult the second participant in the nutty story. A barrel-house piano carries the song along while French-Quarter-at-dawn horns puncture the melody line and blithely corny bass guitar sound effects mimic chagrinned surprise. Ridiculous vocals chip in their, um, unique feeling.

At every break, some farcical banter breaks in loudly. There are shouts of la-bás (literally “down there” or “over there,” but roughly translated as “Hey, pal”). Various ingredients for Creole dishes are shouted out with no rhyme or reason: grits and fish drippin’s; mutterings about boiled crawfish; tomato paste, and red beans and rice. You would think Paul Prudhomme or Emeril Legasse was sitting in on the recording session.

“They Axed For You” is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

 

Hey Pocky A-Way

The Meters
Rejuvenation (1974)

“Hey Pocky A-Way” issues from Rejuvenation, the second album The Meters did for Reprise Records and you can hear them continue on their path towards more complex rhythms, arrangements and inclusion of L.A. Funk and Jazz. Lowell George, the original maestro for Little Feat, once of Frank Zappa’s musical carnival, plays on a different cut from Rejuvenation. It’s hard to know if The Meters influenced George or he them, or just how reciprocal the collaborations were.

Related: Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”

Still, the ever-present sense of fun – the attitude that says “Let’s party tonight and cure the hangover and STDs tomorrow” – remains front and center. It’s cut from the same cloth as their earlier big tunes on this list, and classics like The Dixiecups’ “Iko Iko.”

There’s a bit of story in the song. A very little bit. What exactly they need “rejuvenation for is unclear.” They seem to be doing just fine. For lyrics, click Read More. 

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Cissy Strut

The Meters
The Meters (1969)

The Meters are like a big muffaletta of Funk. Bite into either end, or start from the middle.

“Cissy Strut” was one of their first well-known numbers. “Cissy” in this case does equal “sissy.” Apparently in gay-oriented nightclubs of New Orleans in the early and mid-1960s, there was a dance that included the flailing of the arms and booty shaking. (Like the Nite Cap club on the corner of Louisiana and Carondelet.) The African American community, then the general white community, imitated it but not in a pejorative way. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

You can hear and feel the whole Mississippi River in “Cissy Strut.” The hesitating funkiness is home-grown. The repeating lead guitar line exudes the Blues. The organ riffs are pure Memphis soul. A great instrumental. Flail those arms.

Great ju-ju here. “Tippi-Toes” goes well beyond the geographic range of New Orleans to find its roots and influences. Think T-Bone Walker (of Texas) and his classic version of bluesman Joe Williams’s scorching “Goin’ To Chicago.” Think Booker T. & The M.G.s funking it up out of Memphis, backing Otis and Wicked Wilson Picket, and making a smash of their own “Green Onions.”)

Yet “Tippi-Toes” surprises with a supremely cool-ass set of grooves from a hiccuping lead guitar, a mamba-snake bass line, and a “talking” organ that seems to play off 1960s game-show arpeggios. (You’ve just won a brand new carrrrr!)

The drumming is extra-special. It’s bright, heavily syncopated, giving the listener a remember-when whiff of Ragtime, which, for all intents and purposes was born in New Orleans.

As in so many songs by the Meters, the title and underlying instrumental go heavy on the sexual innuendo. You know, if your toes don’t curl, or in the case of the shorter partner, if she doesn’t stand on tip-toes for that kiss, well… it ain’t got that zing.

Cabbage Alley

The Meters
Cabbage Alley (1972)

Although the song’s title seems to give the lie to it, “Cabbage Alley” is impressively sophisticated, drawing on influences like Frank Zappa, Little Feat’s Lowell George, and a slug from the loving cup of Zydeco music. The Nevilles play a piano duet that lifts the song up like a raft on an ocean swell.

Afro-Cuban rhythms work against standard Rock backbeats to make you want to twist your body into contorted positions. It’s like a Conga line-dance gone horribly astray. In a good way.

You ask, “What is a cabbage alley?” It alludes to two things. If you’re from any city, you know the refuse and stink that squats in an alley during hot, steamy summertime? Well, it all smells like cabbage (or sometimes sour milk). You get the idea. But, a cabbage alley is also an alley where men rolled dice or pitched pennies. They were good places to lose all your “cabbage,” or money, in a game of chance. And if you came up short with what you owed or you were caught cheating… well you better vamoose from town pretty lickety-splickety.

That explains the sort of nonsense lyrics. The singer starts out singing “Hey baby, hey now honey child,” over and over. But as the song progresses, although there is no action revealed, those lines change to “So long baby, so long honey child.”

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