Anchoring the headline spot of the bill for this year’s SliceFest — the annual, all-day music festival hosted by Slice Pizza and Brew — is a band called Foundation of Funk. The band is composed of George Porter Jr. (bass), Tony Hall (guitar), Zigaboo Modeliste (drums) and Ivan Neville (keyboards).
The band’s name is a new one (though there is a 1960s James Brown compilation of essentially the same name), but the roster of musicians who make up its ranks will be a welcome sight for fans of the great tradition of New Orleans funk music. These are four of its greatest standard-bearers or as Porter describes it, “Two of the old guard [Porter and Modeliste] and two of the younger guys, the disciples [Hall and Neville].”
While it is true that Neville is one of the younger members, he comes from one of New Orleans’ most storied musical families. His father Aaron Neville was a member of the soul/funk/R&B group the Neville Brothers along with his siblings Art, Cyril and Charles.
To be a Neville from New Orleans is to inherit a musical pedigree and, apparently, a bit of natural talent as well; Ivan Neville was a member of the Spin Doctors, and he has recorded with such artists as Robbie Robertson, Bonnie Raitt, Paula Abdul and B.B. King. Neville’s band Dumpstaphunk will also be performing at SliceFest.
The two real veterans in the band are Porter and Modeliste, both of whom were founding members of the Meters, one of the most acclaimed and influential bands that helped shape the legacy of New Orleans funk music. One of the other founding members of that band was one Art Neville, Ivan’s uncle, who has played with Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer and many others. The ties of kinship and friendship are tightly, and sometimes confusingly, interwoven in the musical life of the city of New Orleans.
SliceFest will be the first outing for Foundation of Funk as a standalone band, even though all of its members have shared many a stage with one another. Anyone who has attended the annual, 10-day-long New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (otherwise known as Jazz Fest) will be familiar with the tradition of assembling all-star bands of the city’s finest — and music giants who might be stopping through at any time — at bars and venues throughout the city. This also goes on to a lesser extent throughout the year there; it is one of the many layers of the richly textured musical and cultural life of the town.
During a telephone interview from the road, Porter said that the idea for this particular band came about three or four months ago as a result of conversations between buyers and booking agents.
“This will actually be the first time we play together as a band,” Porter said. “We played together in different configurations — Zig, myself, Ivan and [guitarist and member of bands like Lettuce and Soulive] Eric Krasno. I think Zig has probably played with Tony and Ivan on a few different projects. … Both Ivan and Tony are major, serious disciples of that particular music, you know, so it’s like them plugging into something that they’ve been doing almost all their life.”
When asked what kind of sound fans can expect to hear this Saturday, Porter laughed.
“Well, we’ll be playing Meters songs, and…the truth of the matter is that how it comes off is gonna be as interesting to me as it’s gonna be to you,” he said.
Improvisation is a key element to the genre that these musicians have helped to create, so this is by no means uncharted territory.
“I mean like I said, you know, this will be the band’s first performance as a band,” Porter said. “Maybe six or eight weeks ago we did a gig with Ivan — Zig, myself, Leo [Nocentelli, guitarist and another Meters co-founder] and Ivan — up in New York for a private function for a Tulane Alumni Association. So, you know, it’s gonna be reaching into a songbook of music that has pretty much…spanned a long period of time, you know. Music that was recorded almost forty years ago is still alive and still well, you know, and people still want to see it played and hear it played.”
The SliceFest show is one of only two dates the band has scheduled, and this will function as something of a trial run.
“We have another date on the calendar that’s gonna happen the following week at home at Tip’s [Tipitina’s, a New Orleans music venue] that’s another sort of private function,” Porter said. “I guess the whole idea is just to see how this works out.”
Fans of Porter and his Foundation of Funk band mates may be encouraged to hear that they still have a strong interest in creating and recording new music after all these decades. Also, the combination of Porter and Modeliste’s classic Meters-style sound with Neville and Hall’s youthful, rhythmic, slap bass-heavy approach could result in a fine synthesis with a very broad, cross-generational appeal.
“I know Zig is very interested in recording new music, as well as myself; I’m always interested in recording new music.” Porter said. “This is probably a good shot at making some new music, you know. Two of the old guard and two of the younger guys, the disciples.”
In any case, lovers of New Orleans funk music will not want to miss Saturday’s show. With an easygoing laugh as he signed off, Porter said his message to fans was simply: “Don’t be late, because this is gonna be a good time.”
SliceFest, benefitting the Suki Foundation and Make-A-Wish Alabama, will occur on June 6 at 725 29th Street South. Foundation of Funk will perform from 10 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. You can read up on local group Velouria, also performing at the festival, here. For more information, visit slicefest.com.