The Meters may well be the finest performing American band. Without resorting to such modern pop trappings as smoke bombs and gyrating pianos, the Meters offer a continually challenging and sophisticated blend of classic New Orleans styles and modern funk, infusing the music with a contagious vitality not unlike the best soul bands of the Sixties.
The band’s foundation and driving force is drummer Joseph “Zig” Modeliste, who throws standard technique to the wind when he plays, punching out rollicking, second-line rhythms with a stiff-armed attack. The characteristic New Orleans syncopation of older Crescent City stickmen Earl Palmer and Smokey Johnson is colored by Modeliste’s semimelodic accents and clipped meters – at times, the cacophony of his style recalls free drummers like Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. Indeed, it may be Zig’s quirky beats that have kept the Meters from their rightful place beside funk giants like Parliament and Earth, Wind and Fire.
The Meters represent the apex of the bar-band tradition. They play rough, nondisco dance music and funk without the luxury of a horn section. In the best American pop tradition, the group pays healthy respect to its roots – their songbook includes updated versions of New Orleans standards from “Junko Partner” and “Tell It like It Is” to “Big Chief.” Like bar bands everywhere, the Meters also include a raft of cover songs, often surprising ones (“Honky Tonk Women,” “Make It with You”), each stamped with indelible second-line accents and given crisp interpretations. Still, the original material is their best and the sets can include virtually any song they’ve ever recorded.
What’s critical now for reggae is whether or not the music can go around the turn toward spiritual fulfillment. The New Orleans music of the Meters, the original inspiration of the Wailers, Maytals and others, is America’s reggae. It’s time we came home.
This story is from the November 4th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.