A couple years ago, as I began to slowly surrender to the lure of vinyl’s siren song, I watched the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highway on HBO. It was a great series (I’ve written about it before.) Each episode focused on the musical roots of eight great American cities. Though all were quite good, my favorite episode was the music of New Orleans.
Though the hour was quite far ranging, host Dave Grohl focused on a number of New Orleans musical powerhouses. One of those was the amazing Alan Toussaint, a great performer in his own right, who became a mover and shaker in the New Orleans music scene, a great songwriter and producer. Unfortunately he was also one of those we lost last year.
But another influential group of musicians Grohl illustrated was the Meters. I had heard of the Meters before Sonic Highways, but really didn’t know much more than that they were a very influential New Orleans funk band.
There’s a bit more to the story. The Meters were headed up by Art Neville. They began by jamming at various New Orleans watering holes and were hired by Toussaint to be the house band at his new recording company, Sansu in 1966. After years of backing up artists like Earl King, Lee Dorsey and Toussaint, they launched a recording career of their own. From 1969 to 1976 they had a string of albums featuring their syncopated, southern style of funk. I want some.
The problem is that New Orleans music rarely makes its way up to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve seen almost no vintage Meters in local record shops, and the few I have encountered offered price tags with a cardiac arrest warning. Thankfully most, if not all, of their records were re-released on vinyl. I made the decision to jump in and pick up the 2015 Rhino edition of 1975’s Fire on the Bayou.
It’s a really good, if not great record. According to Allmusic.com, it is more polished and highly produced than their pre-1974 recordings. That said, it is a pleasure to listen to. Most of the songs are original and feature the kind of strong instrumental performances you’d expect from a great funk band. It’s a funk I’d describe as smooth, rather than the wildness of P-Funk, or Sly and the Family Stone. While Neville’s vocals are accessible, it is about the rhythm and the groove.
The album is filled with solid material, whether you’re sitting for a serious listen or are just grooving to the tunes as wallpaper. I think my only problem is that it has so few real stand out songs. However three songs are particularly memorable. The title track and “Love Slip Upon Ya” on side one are quite good. However my favorite is their cover of Russ Ballard’s “Liar” that was a big hit for Three Dog Night in 1970, one of the few TDN songs I still really like.
After a second listen, I enjoyed this record even more than the first time. It’s definitely a keeper. I’d really like to pick up a copy of 1969’s Look-Ka-Py-Py to get a take on an earlier, rawer Meters sound, but if you have an interest in the Meters and are looking for a place to start, Fire On the Bayou won’t disappoint and at just over twenty bucks on Amazon, won’t bust your wallet either.