By John wirt
November 01, 2012
Essential as bass players are to a band, they’re often seen as shadowy sidemen. A desire to write songs propelled George Porter Jr. — the master New Orleans bassist who came to fame with the city’s great ’60s and ’70s funk band, the Meters — to lead his own band.
“Living in the shadow of all the songwriters inside of the Meters,” Porter said last week, “I never really got a shot at writing for that band.”
Porter began combining the grooves he created with lyrics after he co-founded a short-lived ’80s group called Joyride. Soon thereafter he launched the Runnin’ Pardners.
“When I started recording with Runnin’ Pardners, I bounced ideas off of the guys,” he said. “And I let everybody come to the table and offer something to the music.”
Porter has made his Runnin’ Pardners a priority for nearly three decades, doing so despite a busy schedule that includes occasional Meters reunions with singer-keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste; stage and studio work with Jimmy Buffett, David Byrne, Robbie Robertson, Tori Amos and many more; and band membership in The Trio, 7 Walkers and Meters offshoots the Meter Men and funky Meters.
“I don’t think the Runnin’ Pardners is something that’s going to go away any time soon,” he said.
Porter and his Runnin’ Pardners will play their first non-private Varsity Theatre gig in years on Friday, Sept. 28.
On Saturday night, he’ll lead an all-star band for the Fess’ House Party New Orleans Style at Tipitina’s. Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Ed Volker, Jon Cleary and more will also appear at the benefit for the preservation and renovation of the home of one of New Orleans’ especially influential musicians, the late singer-pianist Professor Longhair.
“That’s gonna be a fun night of music,” Porter said of the benefit. “We’re gonna raise some money to get Fess’ house up and running, put up a nice little museum.”
Members of the Runnin’ Pardners are also participating in the Longhair house benefit. The Pardners’ current membership features guitarist and senior member Brint Anderson; keyboardist Michael Lemmler; saxophonist Khris Royal; and a young drummer from Baton Rouge, Terrence Houston.
Most of the Runnin’ Pardners also lead their own bands, Porter said with pride, and Houston is a player on the rise.
“I love Terrence’s energy, his positiveness,” Porter said. “And he plays his tail off.”
A high compliment, especially from a bassist who’s been a member of rhythm sections featuring funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste Jr. and Meters and Meter Men drummer Modeliste.
“I put Terrence amongst that group of great, talented players,” Porter said. “And he’s still got growing to do. Give him another 10 years, man, he’s going to be a terror.”
Porter and the Runnin’ Pardners released their latest album, Can’t Beat the Funk!, last year.
It’s a collection of Meters music that neither the Meters nor variations of the Meters performed on stage.
“I always thought they were great songs that should have been played,” Porter explained. “And the players on the record came prepared. They were very honest to the original feel of the songs. But once we started recording, I told them, ‘Let’s not be that honest to it. Let’s take some liberties.’ ”
There’s a good shot, Porter said, that the Meter Men, featuring himself, Nocentelli and Modeliste, will play Can’t Beat the Funk! songs in upcoming shows.
The Meters made high-profile appearances at New Orleans’ Howlin’ Wolf and Voodoo Experience and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in recent years, but no reunions are currently planned.
For Porter, thinking about the Meters puts a smile on his face even while his heart breaks.
“I just cannot understand why that band can’t meet in the middle and figure out a way to go out there and play,” he said. “It happens every now and then and it shows promise but then, all of a sudden, the promise goes away. I hope it ain’t me.”
Whatever else comes of the Meters, Porter is looking forward to Saturday night’s benefit show for the Professor Longhair house.
Porter and Longhair were actually neighbors whose back doors faced each other. The bassist also performed with the pianist whose recordings are local classics, especially “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief.”
“I know a lot of bass players who played with Fess,” Porter said. “They tried to play the exact same thing he played in his left hand. That was kind of crazy because Fess wasn’t ever consistent about what he played. His left hand would do anything. So that made the bass player look like he didn’t know what he was doing.
“So I figured out a way to play with Fess by playing around his left hand. He never said anything, he just kind of gave me a look, like, ‘OK, I see you.’
“I thought Fess’ left hand was essential to what he was doing. Nobody should have been fooling with it.”