Page McConnell and Russell Batiste Jr. Reflect on Art Neville

Dean Budnick on January 10, 2020
Page McConnell and Russell Batiste Jr. Reflect on Art Neville

Earlier this week on Jam Cruise, Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and George Porter Jr. honored Art Neville, who passed away in July. Two other musicians with connections to the Crescent City New Orleans keyboard innovator are Phish’s Page McConnell and the funky Meters’ Russell Batiste Jr. Both McConnell and Batiste spoke about Neville, in the course of conversations for our recent Vida Blue cover story.

Here is a look at their remembrances, which originally appeared in our editor’s note for that issue:

On July 22, New Orleans keyboard legend Art Neville passed away at age 81. First with The Meters and then with The Neville Brothers, he influenced several generations of players with his innovative style. Two of the musicians who appear on our cover are quick to cite Neville’s impact on their own creative paths. What’s more, three years before Page McConnell invited Russell Batiste Jr. to join him in Vida Blue, they met during a studio session that also featured the iconic keyboardist (at a time when Batiste was performing with Neville in the funky Meters). McConnell would go on to play Neville’s parts on the road for a few years when he toured with The Meter Men, a project that featured the rest of the group’s founding lineup: Porter, Zigaboo Modeliste and Leo Nocentelli. It seemed fitting for both of them to share their thoughts on the late, great “Poppa Funk.”

Page McConnell: Art was such a great player, and I really count him as a big influence. I first met him in 1998, when I played on [Get you a Healin’], a benefit CD for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. [Page’s father, the late Dr. Jack McConnell, founded the NOMC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which became “the first health initiative in the United States addressing the health care needs of musicians and artists, as well as their families, whether they are insured, under insured or uninsured.”]

That’s also the same session—and the same day—I met Russell. We put together a little band, with Art, Russell, Mike Gordon, George Porter Jr., Bill Summers and myself. [As the Gyptians, the musicians co-wrote the song “Pain in My Heart.”] We did this session in New Orleans, and I got to hang out with him. It was something really special.

The Meters are one of my all-time favorite bands. I got to see Art with the original lineup once when we did the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco [in 2011]. I was happy to have that opportunity. I’ve also been a fan of The Neville Brothers since the early ‘80s, and I got to see them play a few times here in Burlington.

Art was a big influence on me in a couple different ways. One obvious way is that I was truly honored to sit in his seat and play those songs with the original Meters—playing the parts that he came up with and the style of organ that he played. There was something that was very accessible and inviting to me about his playing. I learned a lot from listening to him. I was able to relate to the melodies that he came up with and get inside them. I started playing a lot more organ as a result of listening to him.

Russell Batiste Jr.: There’s nobody else on earth who can play like Art. If you listen to “Dry Spell” or “Sophisticated Cissy” by The Meters, those two songs feature him soloing and playing throughout. I’ve never heard anybody play the keyboards with that kind of flavor. He created his own sound with The Meters, and it just can’t be matched, it can’t be touched. We don’t have that sound on earth anymore. You can’t see it live—you have to listen to the records. That’s why you have to try and enjoy life and get what you can out of it. Everything here, eventually, is not going to be here anymore.