Arthur Neville has been an icon of the New Orleans music scene for half a century. Nicknamed “Poppa Funk,” Neville helped create the sound that James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone would later popularize as funk music. Fiyo at the Fillmore, Vol. 1 finds Neville and his bandmates in the Funky Meters still cranking out barn-burning live shows nearly 50 years after Neville first hit the scene with the Hawkettes and their seminal New Orleans anthem, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which I’m sure can be heard echoing through the streets this week during Mardi Gras.
Besides that song, Neville’s other musical legacy comes from his long association with the Funky Meters. Formed in 1967 by Neville, George Porter Jr., Joseph Modeliste, and Leo Nocentelli, the Meters (they only recently added the “funky”) first found success with the 1969 single “Cissy Strut,” whose groove I’m sure you’d recognize even if the title isn’t familiar. Critical acclaim for the band followed in the ’70s, along with an opening spot on the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour. The band split up in 1979, but reformed in 1989 and have been touring and putting out albums ever since.
Time doesn’t seem to have dulled the band’s edges. Recorded at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, Fiyo is an exhausting, 70-minute-plus document of the Funky Meters’ New Orleans brand of funk. Of the band’s original members, only Art Neville and George Porter, Jr. remain in the lineup for Fiyo at the Fillmore, but the newest members, guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer David Russell Batiste, Jr., prove to be more than able additions.
Besides the musical virtuosity on display in all the songs, the album also is testament to the Funky Meters’ flexibility. In particular, one of their medleys displays the effortless grace with which the group crosses musical boundaries. Beginning with the fast, syncopated rhythm of “Cissy Strut,” the band then shifts into the reggae-tinged “Soul Island” before slipping into the proto-R&B slow jam, “You’re the One.” Despite the musical range of their songs, the Funky Meters remain locked into an effortless grove that is best described as a kind of bluesy and relaxed James Brownish rhythm.
If, listening to the concert, you think that you’ve heard the Funky Meters’ blend of funk, jazz, and R&B before, that’s because you probably have. Besides serving as an influence on artists ranging from Sly Stone to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Funky Meters’ songs have been sampled by numerous rap artists including LL Cool J and Queen Latifah.
Although the Funky Meters show plenty of teeth for a band that’s been around for 25 years (and whose leader is in his mid-60s), to get a real sense of the bite the Meters used to have you’d be better served to go check out their back catalogue. Their mid-70s albums Rejuvenation and Fire on the Bayou are a good place to start — they show the band at their most innovative. In these and numerous other albums, the Meters helped create the sound that would become the basis for hip-hop and contemporary R&B.
Fiyo at the Fillmore is not for everyone. It’s not pop music by any stretch of the imagination, and if you aren’t into funk or live jam sessions you may want to direct your musical attention elsewhere. But if you are a funk fan and the idea of four older musicians getting down like it’s 1973 warms your heart (as it does mine), then you should check this one out.