The Meters Experience to make Aspen debut |

The Meters Experience to make Aspen debut

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesLeo Nocentelli, founding guitarist of the New Orleans funk band the Meters, brings his Meters Experience to Belly Up Aspen on Sunday, Jan. 3.

ASPEN – Leo Nocentelli knows exactly why he composed the immortal funk tune “Cissy Strut.” It was the mid-’60s, and Nocentelli was the guitarist in Art Neville & the Neville Sounds, a Top 40 group led by the keyboardist Neville. Like seemingly every New Orleans band of the time, the Neville Sounds opened their sets at the Ivanhoe, a small Bourbon Street club, with “Hold It!” Tired of the song, Nocentelli wrote an instrumental piece to take its place.Where “Cissy Strut” came from – the Indian yell that kicks it off, the loose-limbed rhythm, the mix of Nocentelli’s bright, snaking guitar lines with Neville’s thick organ sound – he isn’t so sure. It sounded little like the jazz guitarists – Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel – who first inspired Nocentelli. It had no relation to the Beatles pop tunes or the Rolling Stones’ white, British take on the blues that were turning radio on its ear at the time. And it had little in common with the various styles – brass bands, Louis Armstrong jazz, the piano jazz made by James Booker and Dr. John – that were so identified with New Orleans.”I had no idea where it came from,” said Nocentelli (pronounced No-chen-telly) from Telluride. “Even the songs I wrote, I only remember going to the tape recorder at 2, 3 in the morning to get it down. And I did so much of it, it’s such a blur. I can’t say it came from this or that.”About all he can say about the origins of “Cissy Strut” – and the other tunes he would become associated with, like “Look-a-Py-Py” and “Chicken Strut” – is that they had much to do with Nocentelli’s own origins. “The only thing I can say is, I grew up in New Orleans, with the New Orleans culture, and it had an effect on everybody who was born and raised there,” Nocentelli said. “I attribute it to the New Orleans culture.””Cissy Strut” helped launch one of the most vital bits of New Orleans culture – the Meters, the group that grew out of the Neville Sounds. One night, Allen Toussaint, the noted New Orleans pianist and producer, heard Art Neville’s band playing its then-untitled instrumental ditty. He brought the quartet – drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and bassist George Porter, Jr., in addition to Neville and Nocentelli – into the studio and recorded the song, giving it the name “Cissy Strut.” Upon its release in 1969, the record sold some 200,000 copies and became a hit on the R&B charts.But “Cissy Strut” and the Meters would prove to have a far more lasting impact than, say, “Build Me Up Buttercup,” another 1969 hit. The Meters’ deep, sensual grooves would help lay the foundation for funk and ’70s R&B. Even those who have never heard of the Meters probably recognize “Cissy Strut,” which is a favorite of late-night talk-show bands, and has been covered by John Mayer and probably every New Orleans band in existence. When the Meters weren’t working on their own material, they backed Paul McCartney, Labelle and Robert Palmer. They entertained at the release party for McCartney’s 1974 album “Venus and Mars”; among the guests was Mick Jagger, who promptly invited the foursome to be the opening act on the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour of America.Nocentelli was oblivious to much of the impact the Meters were making until the rise of hip-hop in the late 1980s. Hip-hop acts showed their affection for the band by sampling the Meters’ music; among those to incorporate segments of Meters songs were Public Enemy, LL Cool J, T.I. and Queen Latifah. Nocentelli watched the royalty checks roll in, and realized just how influential the Meters – who broke up in 1977, reunited without drummer Modeliste in 1989, then broke up again in 1994 – had been.”The last 20, 25 years, it’s been a source of satisfaction. Because of this technique called sampling,” Nocentelli said. “That’s a major compliment – not just from a personal aspect, but from a financial aspect. The rappers were jumping on this music. I said, This must be significant.”Nocentelli’s latest project, the Meters Experience, makes its Aspen debut with a show on Sunday, Jan. 3 at Belly Up. Nocentelli has largely moved on from the Meters. Though he does play the occasional gig with the original quartet – and in the summer of 2008, he jammed with Porter and Modeliste at Belly Up, as part of the New Orleans Traveling Road Show benefit concert – he has not been a member of the Funky Meters, the current group that includes Neville and Porter.But Nocentelli hasn’t broken with his artistic roots. He chose the name the Meters Experience to let listeners know that, while it is not a reunion of the old band, it is a resurrection of the old style.”No doubt. That’s just the point. I only am what I am. What I did in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s is just an extension of me. You can’t change the way you look from when you’re born,” Nocentelli, whose father was a banjoist and guitarist, said. “You develop. But you don’t become Amos or Fred. You stay yourself.”The Meters Experience has had a rotating cast of musicians that has included keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge; on one occasion, Nocentelli was joined by Gov’t Mule. On the current tour of Colorado, Nocentelli is flanked by keyboardist CR Gruver of the Colorado band Polytoxic, drummer Ronnie Ciago, and bassist Michael Warren, who played Aspen often through the ’90s as a member of Merl Saunders & the Rainforest Band.Nocentelli says that the Meters Experience isn’t so much about which musicians accompany him on any particular night. It’s about him, and the music he wrote with the Meters, and since then.”The group is really an extension of Leo Nocentelli,” he said. “The music is basically me, and my personality.”Nocentelli – who earned a 2008 Stewy Award for best guitarist from The Aspen Times – adds that even the Meters were largely an extension of his personality. He points out that he was the chief songwriter in the group, even if the publishing credits were shared by the band.”I have no regrets with that,” he said. “But when people say, Who wrote this, who wrote ‘Cissy Strut?’ I can’t say Art or George. It was Leo. It wasn’t about making all the money, getting all the publicity. I just wanted my music to get heard, and the Meters were the perfect vehicle.”The music still gets heard. “Cissy Strut” is an American standard; hip-hop has preserved Meters riffs in samples; funk players have taken the grooves as an essential building block. Nocentelli says he was playing some of his old music on a car stereo for his current bandmates.”These were much younger guys, and they were tripping out,” he said. “I said, That’s 40 years ago. Usually, people forget it or it becomes obsolete. But this has stood the test of time, and I think it will stand the test of all times.”