"You'll have to forgive me if I nod out here and there during our conversation," said Art Neville, his unmistakable New Orleans drawl to the fore. "I have a touch of narcolepsy. It's nothin' personal, man."
If the great keyboard player does seem a little slow, occasionally, to pause, to drift, he's allowed. He is in his 70s, after all and has been on the road forever. But, if you've ever heard the man play, you know that his verbal skills are the only thing about him that are tentative, a touch inchoate. Neville is one of the most rhythmically-intense and decisive men ever to sit down at the piano.
He and his band, The Funky Meters, will be tearing up the this Saturday and Sunday. And believe me: no one will be sleeping during these two sets.
"Sometimes people get a bit confused by the name," said Neville, by way of a cell phone from Queens, New York. "We use to just be 'The Meters.' Some of the guys wanted to play one kind of thing, me and George (Porter, a longtime associate), wanted to do another. So we call ourselves The Funky Meters now, just to make it clear who we are and what we do."
Even if you never heard the name, you'd know it by the cool groove the current foursome lays down.
Starting in the late 60s, Art, brother Cyrille, George Porter, Zig Modeliste and Leon Nocentelli, pretty much invented the brand of music we now know as "funk." Along with James Brown. Well, at the very least, they perfected it.
Starting with their first hits, "Sophisticated Cissy" and "Cissy Strut," these men grafted a melodic sophistication onto the "second line" groove, so prevalent in New Orleans and thereby brought about an intoxicating beat that influenced artists from Little Feat to Robert Palmer.
Also, in various combinations, Art and the guys played behind LaBelle (yep, that's them on "Lady Marmalade"), Paul McCartney, Doctor John, Keith Richards and other luminaries. The Neville name, of course, is legendary in New Orleans. Art's brother, Aaron, he of the wounded-angel falsetto, is perhaps the best known member of their large, extended family.
And what, I wonder, does Neville make of the current R&B scene, that he and his bandmates helped to foster.
"I've listened to Jay Z and Beyonce recently," Neville said. "I don't really get it. Not yet, anyway. It's dance music, but it ain't very funky."
Even as he tours the East Coast and visits brother Aaron in Manhattan, Neville's mind, understandably, is on his beloved, still-hurting New Orleans.
"In some strange ways, it's like it always was, just more extreme since the flood. The parts that are good are still good, the parts that are run down, are still in bad shape. Just worse. The poor folks is hurting there, still. and nothing much has changed that. Of course, yuppies are starting to move in and push out the natives. That ain't nothing new."
Still, he's not going anywhere.
"I've lived in New Orleans my whole life and I plan to keep living there," Neville said.
Having thought about his past, the great keyboardist has a few important thoughts concerning the future. One involves a new record.
"We'd really like to record again, but nobody knows what's going on in the record business these days. There are money men behind doors making decisions about this as we speak. I guess we'll see as to how that affects us."
And finally, there's the even larger issue of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Certainly, considering what they've contributed to the evolution of the music, the original Meters deserve a place in that hallowed hall. Does Neville see himself and his band getting in?
With uncharacteristic optimism, he answers in the affirmative.
"Yeah, I think we're going to get there. There's too many people signing a petition to get us in, we played on too many hit records. So, I don't think they can ignore us forever. You just wait and see. One of these days, when nobody's looking? We're going to get into that place."
Editor's note: This article originally was published by Fairfield Patch.