Review: Foundation of Funk

Feb 16, 2017

Foundation: the base upon which something is built. From houses to skyscrapers, foundations are essential. They must be solid, strong and most of all, immovable. A funk foundation? That, too, must be solid and strong. But immovable? No, quite the opposite. A funk foundation supplies the movement, the locomotion, in a word: the groove.

One of the most famous and influential foundations in funkdom came through Denver over the weekend under the moniker “Foundation of Funk.” Bassist George Porter, Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste are half of the seminal, prototypical New Orleans funk band, The Meters. Along with keyboardist Art Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, they helped define the idiom in the 1960s and into the 1970s. They were one of those bands whose influence among other musicians exceeded their popularity.

Over the years, the members have reunited on occasion, but more commonly, two or three have gotten together with other like-minded funksters in an array of permutations. For example, Porter and Neville have joined with guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. to perform as The Funky Meters. Neville can’t make some of the gigs? Switch the name to Porter, Batiste and Stoltz a/k/a PBS. Better yet, invite a noted keyboardist to join in such as Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident or Paige McConnell of Phish. The Meter Men has been another grouping with Porter, Modeliste and Nocentelli joined by another keyboard player like McConnell.

This time around, Porter and Modeliste are on tour with a rotating crew taking turns on guitar and keys. Saturday night in Denver, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood piloted the Hammond B-3 organ (and a few other keyboards) and Eddie Roberts of the New Mastersounds strapped on the guitar. Last spring, in a series of East Coast gigs, Lettuce and Soulive bandmates Eric Krasno took over the guitar slot and Neal Evans handled the keyboards. Another combination came from Widespread Panic with Jimmy Herring playing guitar and JoJo Hermann at the keyboards. Yet another permutation had Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville on keys and Tony Hall on guitar. No doubt the notoriety of the guests helps bring attention to the band and sell some more tickets.

Having played together since the 1960s, Porter and Modeliste easily dug in and locked down the groove. Far from mere time-keeping, these two not only poured a firm foundation, but added constant embellishments necessary for a full frontal funk attack. Porter was constantly up and down the neck of his Fender bass and Modeliste fired syncopated shots at all the right times.

Of course, the deepest funk requires the guitar and keys to stir in the syncopated sauce and Medeski and Roberts took on those roles in between solos. And those solos: Medeski employed both the B-3 and the electric piano for some wild, intense, frenetic solos on top of the funk foundation. Roberts came up playing a lot of jazz and was influenced by Grant Green. His resulting solos had a bebop flair and, while not as loose and greasy as Nocentelli or Stoltz, added another dimension to the funk fest.

The Meters’ music was more instrumental than vocal oriented, and so it was with the Foundation of Funk. A difference, however, from The Meters’ heyday, was the length of the tunes. Much of The Meters’ material, on record at least, was relatively short; making a quick, dramatic (and of course funky) statement, then moving on. Saturday night, the Foundation of Funk stretched out and created a funk-jam-band sound.

Many classic Meters tunes made the menu starting with the perennial favorite “Cissy Strut.” That one’s an instrumental, but they also sang “Africa,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” “Africa” and “Chicken Strut,” the latter featuring chicken sound effects from Porter. “Funkify Your Life” was both appropriate and necessary. “Fire (or ‘Fiyo’ if you prefer) on the Bayou” turned into a tribute to Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws: “Light it up! Light it up!”

James Brown alum, Fred Wesley, was on the bill with another band that night and he came out for a brief trombone solo toward the end of the evening, touching on another critical developer of the foundations of funk. And we dug it.

Foundation of Funk: George Porter, Jr., Zigaboo Modeliste, John Medeski, Eddie Roberts
Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver
February 11, 2017 by Geoff Anderson