Still runnin’: New Orleans bass legend George Porter Jr. releases new album, gets back onstage
Miss Vicki isn’t credited for her crucial role in the creation of George Porter Jr. & the Runnin’ Pardners’ new album, but she is unlikely to complain.
Miss Vicki is a dachshund/Labrador mix that belonged to Porter’s late wife, Ara. Ara was an early riser, much more so than her musician husband. Thus, Miss Vicki got in the habit of getting up and going outside before sunrise.
After Ara died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, it became George’s responsibility to deal with the dog in the wee hours. While waiting for Miss Vicki to finish her business outside, he started noodling around with either the acoustic bass or guitar he kept downstairs at his Gert Town townhouse.
“I’d pick it up to give myself something to do instead of falling asleep on the sofa,” he recalled. “I wrote six or seven songs while waiting for Miss Vicki to come back in.”
Those early morning compositions account for half of “Crying For Hope,” Porter’s first full-length album of original songs with the Runnin’ Pardners in more than a decade.
He’ll showcase songs from “Crying for Hope” Friday at Tipitina’s. Both the 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. shows will start off with the George Porter Trio: Porter on bass, Michael Lemmler on keyboards and Terrence Houston on drums. Then Runnin’ Pardners guitarist Chris Adkins will join them for the second half of each show.
As the bassist in the Meters, Porter, now 73, helped define New Orleans funk in the 1960s and ‘70s. That legacy made him a legend in the jam-band community. On Feb. 24, 2018, at the Smoothie King Center, Porter sat in with Dead & Company, holding his own alongside three members of the Grateful Dead and guitarist John Mayer. Porter sang “Sugaree” to close the first set, hamming it up and earning a huge ovation.
“It was very heart-warming, the applause and the reception I got for that,” he said. “I was getting ready to pass the bass back to Oteil (Burbridge, Dead & Company’s bassist) because they were supposed to play another song. But Bobby (Weir) said there was no sense in playing anything else in that set.”
After leaving the Smoothie King Center, Porter played two after-party shows catering to funk-loving Dead fans. That night, he noted, “I paid some bills.”
The coronavirus pandemic pulled the plug on such lucrative late nights of music-making, but Porter is easing back in. The Runnin’ Pardners are booked for Suwannee Surprise, a camping festival with socially distanced “pods” in Live Oak, Florida, on April 16-17; Galactic and Tank and the Bangas are also on the bill.
He’ll then fly to Las Vegas to play at a fashion show for Ben Jammin, co-founder of the JamminOn line of tie-dye clothing and the supplier of Porter’s signature stage attire.
A tie-dye fan going back to the ‘60s, Porter was for a while wearing cheap, mass-produced knock-offs. Then he went on tour with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, and Jammin took offense to Porter’s wardrobe: “He said, ‘We are not having you wear that fake tie-dye.’”
For the past few years, Porter has pivoted between the jazz-leaning George Porter Trio and the funkier Runnin’ Pardners.
Several songs on “Crying For Hope” were originally recorded with the Pardners four years ago, only to be set aside as he focused on his trio. He’s got more than a dozen trio studio recordings waiting to be finished, along with hours of live recordings from the trio’s pre-pandemic Monday night residency at the Maple Leaf Bar.
“The singing is the part that needs to be refined,” he said. “I’m not always happy with the way I sing. It takes some time for me to be happy with me.”
Sometimes he will forgo singing, lyrics or even a real title. The second song on “Crying For Hope” is called “Porter 13A” — the original file name that identified the track on his computer.
For other songs, he called in Susan Cowsill, Leslie Smith and Mia Borders to help with lyrics. Borders wrote words for “Wanna Get Funky” and “Get Back Up.” Porter didn’t like the way he sang “Get Back Up” and was going to leave it off the album, until Lemmler suggested it remain as an instrumental.
“Mia wrote some wonderful lyrics and I wasn’t pulling it off really well,” Porter said. “It’s about me being able to sing a track with some legitimacy. I did not do a really good job.”
His girlfriend of two years, photographer Denise Sullivan, has helped him sort out paperwork leftover from a long legal battle with an ex-manager, as well as his lyrics.
“She turns my words into English. She’ll say, ‘This just doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a word.’ And I’ll say, ‘If Dr. John can get away with it …’ She goes, ’You’re not Dr. John.’”
Musically, “Crying For Hope” covers familiar terrain for Porter, from the smooth funk of “Cloud Funk” to the Grateful Dead-like “You Just Got Tired.” “I’m Barely” recalls the Radiators; Porter’s craggy vocal take evokes the Rads’ Dave Malone.
Porter wrote “I’m Barely” when Ara, who’d been at his side for 50 years, was nearing the end of her cancer battle.
“I was canceling gigs to stay home. She was not having that. She did not want me to stop my career and be her caretaker. She was trying to push me away. I was having trouble with that.
“She protected me all of my life. Even though what she was trying to do was protect me from her illness, it hit a soft spot on my bones.”
“Get Back Up,” an album highlight, could pass for a lost Meters gem, given its effortless groove and the way Lemmler’s sing-song organ style recalls that of the late Art Neville.
Lemmler also channels Neville on “A Taste of Truth,” which sounds tailor-made to be played on a sunny day at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“Everyone in this band, unbeknownst to themselves, pays homage to the Meters,” Porter said of Runnin’ Pardners. “Especially with Lemmler, I always tell him, ‘Think bebop. Don’t think funk. Don’t play an R&B solo.’ I try to present this group in a light that shows their talents.”
Not that Porter and his “partners” are running away from his Meters legacy. Royalties from classic Meters recordings have helped keep him afloat financially during the pandemic. The Runnin’ Pardners’ 2011 album “Can’t Beat the Funk” consisted of new versions of 14 Meters songs that the band never, or rarely, performed live.
Just before the pandemic, Porter was in Mexico to play with Foundation of Funk, in which he and Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste explore their old band’s catalog with different collaborators. Porter anticipates rejoining Foundation of Funk whenever Modeliste is ready to start playing again.
He also welcomes offers to pair him with Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli (who will lead his own quartet for two shows Saturday at Tipitina’s). “At this point in time,” Porter said, “I’m in no position to say no to income.”
But he’s unlikely to ever perform again as the Meters or the Funky Meters, the popular offshoot he fronted with Art Neville, who died in 2019.
“I get questions all the time about whether I’ll put a version of the Funky Meters together. The Funky Meters was Art and myself. I’m not doing anything else with that.”
Between the Runnin’ Pardners, the George Porter Trio and Miss Vicki, he’s got more than enough to keep him runnin’.
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