George Porter Jr. on Jazz Fest, Playing with Dead & Company and The Meters’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy
“I lost my wife in November,” George Porter Jr. reflects. “She died a month and one day shy of our 51st wedding anniversary. I’ve been missing her every day, but I think she’s still around guiding me through this world that she created around me and helping me keep a family in one place and happy. She’s no longer here to protect me, but I’m glad that I’m not making too many mistakes.”
The founding Meters bassist remains an active creative artist, with a new George Porter Trio on the horizon featuring lyrical contributions from Susan Cowsill, Mia Borders and Denise Sullivan. He hopes to complete the record in time for Jazz Fest, when the New Orleans native will have plenty on his plate, including gigs with the Trio and his band Runnin’ Pardners, as well as special performances with Voodoo Dead (which also features Steve Kimock, Jeff Chimenti, Jackie Greene and John Morgan Kimock).
Porter and Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste will also revisit The Meters catalog through their Foundation of Funk project, this time with the help of guitarist Anders Osborne and Widespread Panic keyboardist JoJo Hermann. There’s plenty more in the offing as well, such as a special Foundation of Funk show at Lockn’ that will include members of The Meters extended family like Cyril Neville, Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and Tony Hall.
As you look back on Jazz Fest, what’s changed over the years?
In the beginning, it was much smaller and then, they started bringing in more of the national acts so some of the local artists lost their positioning on the main stages and started appearing on the smaller stages or in the tents. But since it’s become a larger festival, that’s helped them too.
I’ve been out there since the beginning as an artist and as a production manager. The first 17 years up at the Fair Grounds, I was the person in charge of getting the backline straightened out and whatever else the artists needed. It got hard on me, though, because I was doing that and also playing gigs all night. What would happen was someone would say, “Porter, they’re calling for you over on stage three” because some bass player didn’t show up and they needed a bass player. So I was always jumping around the site, and then someone else would say, “You’re hardly ever here anymore.”
You recently sat in with Dead & Company at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. How was that experience?
That night was very humbling. I’m not really sure how many people were in that building—I’d heard over 18,000—but it had to be one of the warmest welcomes that I’ve gotten from an audience on the planet. I was almost melting in my shoes.
The first time they came and the show got cancelled [due to John Mayer’s appendicitis], Bill had contacted me about sitting in. Then this time, I received a call from Mickey letting me know that he wanted me to come out and play with the band. When I spoke with Bill the night before, he asked me what I wanted to play. So I checked the setlists to see which songs weren’t getting played too often, and I chose “Smokestack Lightning” and “Bertha.”
You weren’t familiar with the Dead catalog until relatively recently, right?
That’s true, although I’ve played with almost all of the guys over the past 10 years. I was in Mickey Hart’s band for a short period of time when he did his solo thing with Jen Durkin on vocals. I also played with Bill in 7 Walkers for over a year and half. At Christmas Jam a couple years ago, I played with Bob and then, about two months ago, I did a thing in Mobile, Ala. with Phil. There’s good music there, and I’ve never had a problem learning and playing good music.
I’d like to learn a few more songs though. The guy who was doing my bass-checking that night at the Dead & Company show handed me a song, “Days Between.” He said it was a great song that wasn’t played too often. I haven’t had a chance to do it, but I wanna look into it because, if I can pull out a Dead song that’s not played very often, it’d be killin’.
Earlier this year The Meters won a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy. How did you respond to that?
I was in disbelief because, to my knowledge, The Meters had never been nominated for a Grammy of any sorts, even going all of the way back to what are considered our greatest songs. We just never had one of those songs that would put us over the top. So for us as a band, to get a Lifetime Achievement Award is an honor. It feels like somebody there had been listening.
It’s still a disgrace that The Meters aren’t in the Rock Hall.
Bill Kreutzmann agrees with you. He told me this story about appearing at some show where they honored the Grateful Dead. When he got the honor, he mentioned that it’s really a shame that they had not inducted the bass player in his group 7 Walkers. Then, he mentioned my name and he mentioned The Meters, and the whole audience stood up and clapped. We’ve been nominated a few times, and maybe it’ll happen while all four of us are still around.
There have been a few times over the past few years when a musician has approached Stanton Moore and asked him to recommend someone who sounds like the bass player on The Meters records and he’s said, “How about the actual bass player on The Meters records?” What has been your reaction to this?
My reaction has been: “Hey, I’m alive. I’m here! I still know how to play!” [Laughs.]
Stanton has done a wonderful job of helping keep my name in his world. And Ben [Ellman], the saxophone player with Galactic, has done a few sessions where someone’s said, “We wanna get this bass sound” from a record I was on. And he’ll say, “Well I know the bass player; I’ll get him.” Then, if it’s the right time and the right place, I’ll pull out that little P Bass and bring it to the studio.
This article originally appears in the April/May issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.