Editor’s note: Art “Poppa Funk” Neville died at the age of 81 on July 22, 2019. He was founding member of The Meters and The Neville Brothers. Neville had been in poor health for several years. However, he recovered and played in a short tour in 2016, including a memorable performance at the Crystal Bay Casino. Below is a review of that show.
Do you believe in funky miracles?
The leader of one of music’s most influential bands returned to the stage at Lake Tahoe on June 17, 2016 after a several-year hiatus, one most thought would be permanent.
Appearing thin but hardly frail, 78-year-old Art “Poppa Funk” Neville played keyboards, sang and laughed on a night where the Funky Meters held court before more than 400 dancing concertgoers in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room.
The Funky Meters — Neville and bass player George Porter Jr., two of the original Meters, guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer Terrence Houston – are playing a half-dozen select shows this summer after Neville made a surprise comeback appearance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
In 2009, the last time Neville was at Tahoe, he exited the Crown Room in a wheelchair after performing with his post-Meters band, the Neville Brothers. His condition was not publicized but the widely held opinion of musicians close to him was that “Papa Funk” had played his last gig.
Even before last night’s show, there was intrigue about whether Neville was really going to play. He didn’t appear at the sound check and neither the sound engineer nor the musicians’ liaison had seen him.
But when the show started, there he was at the keyboard, looking sharp in his familiar beret and Van Dyke beard, quintessentially New Orleans. He led the vocals on the Meters’ classic “Fiyo on the Bayou.”
The atmosphere in the room was electric and euphoric, and the band was indeed on fire. Many in the crowd were too young to realize the historical significance of the Meters, but they were into its feel-good music.
Influenced by artists such as Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter, Art Neville created a funky sound based on syncopated rhythms that are used by New Orleans second-line drum and horn bands.
In the late 1960s, “Papa Funk” had to make changes to his band — Art Neville and the Neville Sounds — when he was offered a recurring show in the French Quarter at a club called the Ivanhoe. The club owner wanted an instrumental group, so Neville was forced to dismiss saxophonist Gary Brown and his younger brothers Cyril and Aaron, despite Aaron Neville’s fame as the singer of the hit song “Tell It Like It Is.”
What kind of genius club owner would fire Aaron Neville? As it turned out, creating the Meters, the quartet of Art Neville, Porter, electric guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, was most fortuitous.
Producer Allen Toussaint discovered the Meters and brought the band into the studio, where it played behind Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Robert Palmer and other New Orleans’ frontmen on a slew of hit records. The Meters, too, had several superb albums, and some of its songs, such as “Cissy Strut” and “Funky Miracle,” are standards for almost every jazz ensemble across the nation.
But the group never achieved mainstream success and it disbanded in 1977. Soon thereafter, the Neville Brothers, which did gain wide popularity, were formed.
The Funky Meters were started at an informal jam at the 1989 New Orleans Jazz Festival with Art Neville, Porter, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. Stoltz joined in 1994 and the band has been together in different forms ever since. Neville had been out of the band for several years until all four original Meters had a reunion show at this winter’s jazz festival.
During the Tahoe show, the Funky Meters cheerfully showed off its musicianship, applying its groove to all styles of songs. “Cissy Strut” morphed into Dorsey’s hit song “Get Out My Life, Woman,” and “Just Kissed My Baby” transitioned to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
Toward the end of the night, Porter introduced Neville, who addressed the crowd.
“I’ve been sick,” he told the audience. Almost inaudible, Neville added that he could hear the crowd and that he was moved by their appreciation. Everyone cheered and some of them cried.
Neville whispered to the bass player the song he wanted to play next, and Porter, as he did many times during the evening, threw his head back and laughed. The band played “Mustang Sally,” segueing into “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”
When three of the Funky Meters exited the stage, Neville sat at the end of his bench, looking back to his bandmates. They returned, of course, and played an encore song, “Hey Pocky, A-Way.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. when the show ended. The crowd continued to cheer. Porter smiled at Neville and said, “That was special, man.”