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Fun, Fun, Fun

Local promoter (and self-proclaimed "Independent Rock Martyr") Rob "Fun Bobby" Birmingham has announced details for the first annual Fun Bobby Festival. The three-day event, held at Mesa's Hollywood Alley, will showcase some top local acts as well as a bevy of rawk and punk bands on their way to the yearly South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.

The festival kicks off on Monday, March 12, with a triple bill featuring Alternative Tentacles outfit Victim's Family, wild woman Texas Terri (regarded as the female Iggy Pop) -- who will be in tow with her band the Stiff Ones, while locals Hillbilly Devilspeak open. On Tuesday, March 13, L.A.'s Streetwalkin' Cheetahs headline, supported by Junk Records punks the B-Movie Rats and Tempe's Terror .45.

The final day features a bow from Canadian esoterics NoMeansNo (see the item on page 86), as well as sets from Removal and Fat Grey Cat.

Cover for the first two nights is $6, while Wednesday's entry carries a $10 price tag. Shows begin at 9 p.m.

Sonic Reducer: Although he led a number of popular and influential local groups (including Nuvo West), most folks will remember "Sonic" Mike Stevens from his days in the early '80s fronting the Red Squares. The group, which was responsible for the "Modern Roll/Time Change" single -- one of the best two-fer slabs of Valley punk ever -- has found a resurgence overseas of late thanks to inclusion on some of the Killed by Death CDs, a bootleg compilation series focusing on obscure punk bands. The renewed attention has made the Red Squares' one piece of vinyl a hot collectors' item on eBay and sparked talk of a live archival release.

But Stevens isn't content to be relegated to the dustbin of aging punks. Now residing in Prescott, Stevens visits his hometown periodically fronting an old school trash rock outfit called the Trailer Park Zorros. The band is set to invade Phoenix again this week as part of a northern Arizona triple bill featuring fellow Prescotters and rockabilly cats the High Rollers and Flagstaff's the Half Empties. The concert is set for this Friday, March 9, at Jugheads. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Helping Out: In what seems to be a rash of such events, another local musician is being aided in his hour of need. Travis Nelson, a country/bluegrass picker and member of Saturday Market and the Grasswackers, was involved in a serious auto accident in December that left him in a coma. Although Nelson emerged from his state and is well on the road to recovery, his finances have taken a hit during the incapacitation (also, the driver who struck Nelson was uninsured).

A benefit concert has been arranged to help defray his medical costs. The show will take place this Saturday, March 10, at Code 3. Slated to play are up-and-coming metal bands Makina, Jarra and Against the Natural, as well as blues outfit Fatal Attraction.

There is a $10 cover and all proceeds will benefit Nelson. For more information, contact Kimberly Thompson at 480-429-9184.

Second Time Strut: On the flight back to New Orleans after recording the Meters' eighth album, founder and leader Art Neville announced that he was leaving the band. It was 1977, and things hadn't been going well for the quartet that year; financially speaking, they never had. But it didn't feel like a fitting end to the funkiest foursome in history, the group Mick Jagger had declared "the best motherfuckin' band in the world." The players were still young men, with plenty of reason to believe their unique ensemble was on the brink of another significant recombination of sound. The title of the Meters' newly finished record -- New Directions -- suddenly took on an ironic meaning. Funk aficionados, hip-hop producers, the Rolling Stones and everyone else whose life was touched by the band can only imagine what that new, ultimately unrealized direction might have been.

Twenty-three years later, that ending still seemed premature to the group, which has mounted something of a mini-comeback over the past year. Last November, the original foursome -- keyboardist Neville, drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli -- played a reunion gig in San Francisco to the delight of several thousand rabid fans. This week, the band -- now billed as the Funky Meters after an official name change in 1994 -- will perform at Tempe's Nita's Hideaway as part of a national tour that will carry them through the end of April. Original members Modeliste and Nocentelli are not touring with this version of the group; taking their places are trapsman David Russell Baptiste Jr. (Robbie Robertson) and guitarist Brian Stoltz (Bob Dylan, Dr. John).

In the history of popular music -- before the band and since -- the Meters stand out as an aberration. According to any conventional models for success, the Meters never should have happened, or never should have made it beyond the bayous of Louisiana -- an instrumental R&B group that was stingy on the vocals and even stingier on melody, built around the outlandish syncopation of New Orleans marching bands.

 

The band wasn't born out of a self-conscious desire to break any molds; it just happened that way. Neville, who was 10 years older than the other Meters, had already made a name for himself in 1955 with the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo." After quitting that band, Neville's brother Aaron scored a big hit with "Tell It Like It Is," and Art Neville joined him on tour to support it.

When he came back home, he decided to form his own band, the Neville Sound Band. Soon Modeliste, Porter, Nocentelli and a tenor saxophonist named Gary Brown were gigging with Neville regularly on Louisiana Avenue at the Nite Cap Lounge. They covered popular soul songs by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, along with local hits by Fats Domino and Earl King. Art Neville sang lead, his brothers Cyril and Aaron frequently stopping by to sit in.

Between sets of vocal numbers, the group would shift the energy with some freeform instrumental jams. Well-known Crescent City producer Allen Toussaint caught a show and heard in these numbers a musicianship that rivaled Booker T. & the MG's, the instrumental group that Modeliste recalls "was really burnin' the air up." The next thing they knew, they were in the studio recording an album -- minus Gary Brown and Art's brothers -- under a new name.

In 1969, the Meters released a string of nationally successful singles for the small Josie label -- "Sophisticated Cissy," "Live Wire" and "Cissy Strut" chief among them -- which have since been sampled by rap artists including Run-D.M.C., NWA, Salt 'N' Pepa, L.L. Cool J and Boogie Down Productions, and covered by hippie/jam bands like the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident. Each player's parts were balanced against the whole with a deceptive simplicity, which often obscured how unorthodox and involved the song arrangements actually were. At the heart of these down-home, almost painfully funky dance tunes were the intuitive songwriting of Neville and the monstrous drums of the 21-year-old Modeliste.

On the strength of several charting singles, the band landed a deal with Reprise/Warner in 1975; the following year, they went on tour with the Stones. But given these accouterments of success, the band maintains it never received fitting payment from its albums. According to Porter, the first three releases were heavily bootlegged by the Meters' management outside the U.S., and Warner Bros. never figured out how to market the band.

As the years went on, the individual players began receiving requests to record sessions outside the Meters for more money than they could ever make inside it. Modeliste even turned down a chance to play with Miles Davis.

"And on top of all that," Porter says, "we had a tour manager who wanted to be the manager, [who was] feeding Art a bunch of crap. The divide-and-conquer thing had begun to happen. By the time any one of us realized what was going down, Art had left the band and started the Neville Brothers."

Modeliste and Nocentelli continued playing as the Meters for a few years before finally calling it quits. Porter fell into heavy cocaine use and played on Bourbon Street with a tourist band. Neville was the only member to find success that outshone his status as a former Meter, recording a number of R&B crossover hits with his brothers.

After a marginally satisfying reunion show in 1980 in their hometown, Modeliste and Nocentelli moved to California separately, and communication among members fell off. They did pursue litigation against their former management for unpaid royalties, a legal battle Modeliste is still fighting. (The other three settled out of court in 1989.)

Around that same time, Porter finished a treatment program and started playing in New Orleans again. He hooked up with Nocentelli on a visit, and they decided to form the Funky Meters, which Neville eventually joined. There is disagreement among the band members as to the issue of Modeliste's involvement -- Porter says he was invited to join but felt the business conditions were not properly resolved, while Modeliste maintains he was never asked.

Modeliste eventually settled in Oakland and assembled a solo project that's earned acclaim in San Francisco. About two years ago, he first suggested the idea of a full reunion in the Bay Area -- a place where the group is still a wildly popular attraction -- which took place late last year at the Warfield Theater.

 

The year 2000 proved to be a good one for the Meters' recorded legacy, also, as New York's Sundazed Records reissued the band's eight classic 1969-1977 albums for Josie, Reprise and Warner Bros. on CD. This month, Sundazed will also release the "lost Meters album" Kickback (see "In Town," page 104), an odds 'n' sodds collection from the Meters' mid-'70s Fire on the Bayou/Trick Bag period.

The Funky Meters will perform outdoors at Nita's on Tuesday, March 13, along with fellow New Orleans legends the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Zia, Stinkweeds, Eastside, Hoodlums, Headquarters, online at www.ticketweb.com or by calling 1-800-965-HUBS. -- Darren Keast

NoMeansNo: One of the most unfortunate tendencies of uncreative music writers is the need to describe (or more accurately, simplify) a band's sound by slapping the suffix "-core" after some dubious adjective. "Emocore," "grindcore," "sadcore," "mathcore," "softcore" and "rapcore" are just a few of the many crimes against language this practice has produced.

But to be fair, some bands don't mind silly adjectives. So please, feel free to call NoMeansNo a jazzcore act. Drummer John Wright won't get mad. In fact, he can even sympathize with the necessity that spawned these silly inventions.

"I can see it, people saying, 'NoMeansNo, it's this band that plays . . . music. What kind of music? Music,'" he says with a laugh. "When people ask me, I say we play loud music."

Loud music? Definitely. But it can also be complex, difficult to follow, even jarring music. While the band's label, Alternative Tentacles (former home to Dead Kennedys and Butthole Surfers), is synonymous with furious punk, NoMeansNo isn't afraid to risk offending purists with long songs, such as the 15-minute version of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" on the band's latest album, No One. This track leads into a slowed-down version of the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat," and while Wright describes this closing cover couplet as a "nice juxtaposition," he admits NoMeansNo didn't intend to put "Brat" on the album until band members realized they couldn't think of a better grand finale.

"I suppose we do explore the polar ends of music," Wright admits. "When it's not four-by-four power chords, it must be jazz. If it's syncopated, it must be funk. We listen to jazz, but it's just people trying to push the limits of what we can do. We don't play punk rock. Well, we do, but we also stretch our limits."

By doing so, NoMeansNo also stretches the range of its audience, pulling in fans other than the usual punk-club suspects.

"There are two camps you can kind of divide the audience into," Wright explains. "You have your teenage boys who want to slam dance to the rock and punk, and the older fans who want the musically challenging songs with more emotional content. We enjoy doing both. I like it when somebody connects to my music, but it's also fun to pen songs that people can dance to."

NoMeansNo has been performing for 21 years, so some of those older fans once were the moshing teenagers, and some of the youngsters in attendance are drawn not by familiarity with the group's nine albums but by recommendations from trusted siblings.

"People come out because their older brothers or sisters like us, and if you stick around long enough, you become old-school," Wright says. "We're kind of lucky in the sense that we were unlike any other band. We always played in the punk milieu, but although we embraced the do-it-yourself ethic, we were never punk. We remained independent, so we didn't get chewed up and spit out by the mainstream."

Another key to NoMeansNo's longevity is the willingness of its members (the band also includes guitarist Tom Holliston and Wright's brother Rob, who sings and plays both guitar and bass) to become involved in other projects. In addition to releasing a collaborative album, The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, with punk icon and Alternative Tentacles owner Jello Biafra, the Wrights also record as the Hanson Brothers, churning out campy Ramones-type rockers that are as simple as NoMeansNo's tunes are complex.

"One feeds the other, so you don't get bogged down," Wright says of balancing the bands. "You need to be able to step back from things like this and get some perspective so the band doesn't consume [you]. You have to keep working, but you also have to live a life so you have something to write about."

NoMeansNo doesn't usually have to search hard for inspiration; the group's frequent travels have led to many enthralling tales. Take the band's run-in with European organized crime in 1998.

 

"We had a van filled with stolen merchandise, and we had to deal with the Polish Mafia," Wright says. "But we got it back, nothing touched. They didn't want the van, they wanted our money." Band-related legends being what they are, this story has taken on a life of its own, even mutating into a version where the band was kidnapped by goons. But not all of the group's experiences with overseas travel have downsides, easily embellished or otherwise. Wright has proud memories of playing in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain of Communism fell, and since then, he has returned to observe how the advent of Western capitalism has affected the countries. So when he decides to inject what he's learned into his music, his social commentary offers a sense of worldly authority and insight that's a welcome change from the empty anger of most gripers.

"A diatribe comes from one perspective," Wright says. "You are a product of everything around you. It's the age of communication, and people have no idea what's going on in the world. We're forming viewpoints based on 30-second sound bites. We're forming opinions based on nothing. Now Mr. Bush bombs people to prove he's a man, and people think it's okay. They're just people; they don't deserve to be bombed. Sometimes it's frustrating. People don't have any idea how well they're living. They have to bitch and complain about how bad things are." -- Michael Tedder

NoMeansNo is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 14, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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