So what made the difference this time in the way the band approached the material, in the success of the shows, and in the fact that they’re all enthusiastic about doing more? “I thought that everybody had a chance to focus on their personal preparation and to focus on their music. I felt like everybody was into it and wanted it to be successful, and that was a little bit different than the first time. The first one we did in San Francisco, even though it started off beautiful, it got to the point where we didn’t spend enough time together nurturing our craft. I think it went down pretty good, I just don’t think it was relaxed enough. Even these shows that we just got finished doing, the more we did, the more relaxed we was becoming.”
Through the recent mini-tour, the quartet stayed focused on the music all the while learning how to groove together, tour together, and be together — again. Granted, it wasn’t as if they hadn’t kept company with each other over the last 30 years, but it had been a considerable amount of time since they had performed over two hours worth of material on stage, over the course of multiple dates. “It was a fact-finding mission about how we was going to approach our music again, and I think it was robust and grooving harder than a lot of these bands that I see on TV. I think it was fascinating that everybody was keeping focused on the music. Rehearsal was minimal because there was an error getting us together. When we got to Vegas, we rehearsed about an hour and that was it. But I thought we did accomplish a lot: We got back to playing a lot, and like anything else, you have to do it a couple times to get it to a maximum level. By the time we got to San Francisco, I thought it was picking up steam and getting better and better. In New York, it was just over the top! I think The Meters is a phenomenon. People are going to find out sooner or later that this was the hardest grooving band in the business. The great part about it was that every show was getting better and better, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of the excellence I know this band can actually deliver.”
With eight albums worth of material to cover, it was a challenge for the band to hone down a manageable amount of songs to cover over the course of the mini-tour — many of which they hadn’t played together in more than 25 years. “Quite naturally, we had to abandon some of them. It became about trying to figure out what songs to successfully do without rehearsal and what songs not to do without rehearsal. But improvising is the way we do it. Everybody knows the basic song structure — there’s a solo here, one interlude here. We might switch to another song on the set list if it seemed like coming out of a particular song may give it even more life and make it more colorful. Since we only have four pieces, it gives us a lot of space to venture into different areas with different songs.”
Because of the reputation they’ve earned as a musically adventurous and instrumentally spontaneous group, it’s not surprising that The Meters often get lumped into the category of “jam band” — in fact, they were included in last year’s Bonnaroo jam band festival spin-off, Vegoose, in Vegas. But Modeliste is quick to dispel any similarities with bands of that genre. “This is not a jam band,” he emphatically points out. “We don’t jam! I don’t know who put that phrase together. This is a band that has a lot more texture and lot more definition. Jam bands from what I’ve seen are just that: jamming and trying to do the impossible with the possible. I don’t have nothing against that, I just don’t want anybody to categorize us that way. There’s a big difference. We’re a groove band, everybody dedicated to do one thing: ’Get that groove, baby!’”
Growing up in New Orleans, Modeliste was exposed to its multicultural rhythms at an early age. The city’s rich musically ethnic diversity — magnified thanks to a booming pre-Katrina tourism industry — was pervasive and a main revenue stream (along with food, architecture, and a whole lot more). Seemingly, there was music everywhere, from the “second-line” street parades (jazz funeral parades honoring the dead) to the clubs, or right in his own neighborhood, which was brimming with musicians.
“Well, my story is just like everybody else that plays drums. My family used to take me to different events where they had live music when I was around seven. Right away, it was like a virus. I caught it, and it made me want to get more involved in music. I just started beating on a lot of different things around my momma’s house, and my mother and father just noticed that I had some talent. They started buying me drums and it was on! I had a few formal lessons, and I played in the marching band in high school. Plus, I was going on gigs trying to learn how to play at night and going to school in the day. I wasn’t gigging that much so it didn’t interfere with my school, but I remember from at least eighth or ninth grade I was playing some gig somewhere — frat parties, proms, gigs other than in bars. You had to know how to play a little bit of straight-ahead jazz, calypso, mambo, bossa novas, standards, rock and roll, surely you had to know how to play blues and funk. I was playing with guys in their late twenties, thirties — some of them in their forties. They brought a lot of experience my way, and it helped me a lot.”
Not surprisingly, Modeliste found his biggest mentors right in his own backyard — players ranging from Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, James Black, David Lee, Eugene Jones, and John Boudreaux. “People from my area who were outstanding performers were the players I first had access to. You draw from your surroundings. Then I started hearing people like all the James Brown drummers, recording genius Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T., Steve Gadd, and James Gadson from the 103rd Street Rhythm Band. And the high priest Elvin Jones. He was the master! That was the man I admired for what he did with drums and his style. The way he played was just incredible. Earl Palmer was a high priest too. He set a precedent and was one of the most successful drummers ever to leave New Orleans. Him and Hal Blaine had some of the most record dates than anybody in the ’60s. I also love Charlie Watts, Jack DeJohnette, and Jim Keltner — he’s a bad cat!”