Benji Shanks: At the Crossroads of Southern Rock and Stardom

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In George Porter’s forty plus years as a working musician, the bassist has just about done it all.

Starting in New Orleans with the legendary Meters in the mid 1960s, Porter has established himself as one of the greatest living bass players, and with a resume of work done with a who’s who of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers – Paul McCartney, Robbie Robertson, David Byrne, Jimmy Buffet, Allen Toussaint, Patti Labelle, and Dr. John among others – it would be easy to let up and coast by on past accomplishments.

Porter has never let up and shows no sign of doing so anytime in the foreseeable future. Teaming up with a few old friends, drummer Russell Batiste and guitarist Brian Stoltz, PBS is keeping alive Porter’s long musical legacy and allowing him to enlarge it even further.

 

The trio has recently released a live album, Moodoo (recorded at Club Metronome in Burlington, VT last year) that captures PBS in all their live glory.  The night became even more special when Page McConnell from Phish joined in at the last minute.  The results, as they usually are when Porter is on stage, are pure live-improvisational bliss.

Speaking with Honest Tune a few days after election day and shortly before hitting the road for a short tour of Europe with John Scofield (along with Jon Cleary & Ricky Fataar), Porter discussed all that and more.

Honest Tune: This has been a pretty historic week; does politics and what is happening in the world affect your music or do you keep those things separate? 

George Porter:  They are two different animals for me. 

HT:  If not politics or world events, what is it that inspires you then? You have been at this for quite some time – what is it that gets you up the morning?  

GP: {Laughs} I don’t know.  I don’t have a pulse on what it is that motivates me to keep this up.  To think about it can be maddening.  I haven’t ever really thought about.  I think if I really thought about it I might start shying away from it, and I am not sure at sixty I am going to be able to find any more meaningful employment. {laughs}

pbs1.jpgHT: Well please don’t start thinking about it; just keep doing what you are doing.  We definitely appreciate what you do.  You have done pretty well with your first choice of jobs.  You have worked with so many people in your long career, and in the last couple of years have settled into a nice groove with Russell and Brian as PBS. What is it about this current line-up you have that makes it special?

GP: I think PBS being a trio gives us each a little more room individually to stretch our muscles.  When you are playing in larger bands, then everybody’s parts absolutely have to get smaller for it to make sense.  What keeps this band so interesting is that if we choose to just to play five songs for the rest of our lives, those five songs would get played differently every night.  That, for me, is the most interesting part about the band, no matter how many times you see us, you are not going to see hear the same thing. 

HT:  You have always been about the live show and reinterpreting the song each night.  How is your role different in this group than it has been in other groups? Does who you work with dictate what you do, or do you have your set role you always follow? 

GP:  I believe that if I am playing in somebody’s house, so to speak, I find that I bring less of me and be more of what is needed inside of that group, unless I am being told by the band leader to “play more like you.”  Even with that being said, I am a bass player, and my job as a bass player is to unite with the drummer and allow everyone else to know where the one is, because we – the drummer and I – know where the one is.  We establish that one and it is always there, no matter how far out the band goes, it is always there. The rest of the band always has some place to come to home to, you know?  So that is always my priority, no matter where I play. 

Even in a power trio where we all have the freedom to do what we want, I am still very in intact with the drummer.  Me and Brian Stoltz can be pretty challenging sometimes.  We be running around and then Russell tries to bring us back to reality and we keep running around and then all of sudden we are all like, “uh-oh who got one?”  That is the most exciting part of the night when we all go off ranting and raving and then when it is time to get back in the pocket and we just fall back into it.  We all just look at each other and laugh and ask “how did we do that?”

HT:  It is definitely about the journey and what you do on your way “there.” Do you find that you let yourself stray away a little bit more than you normally would, because you know that Russell or Brian will have your back and help you find your way home? 

GP:  I try and not go so far where my back is not being taking care of.  But I think I can take liberties with these guys because I know that they do have my back.  Russell Batiste, as outside as he gets when he plays and as exciting a player as he can be, he is absolutely an unbelievable musician.  He always has his finger on the pulse and is the one that brings us back.  Even when it is just an accident and we all just happen to fall back into the pocket. 

HT:  Do you ever take those accidents you come on across on stage and turn them into songs?

GP:  I have done that many times in my writing.  That is the way the original Meters did a lot of their writing in the early days, the writing came from the jams.  With this band there is still some of that as well.  “It’s Me” from the original album (2005’s Expanding the Funkin’ Universe) came from a bass lick that I was playing in a solo.  I played the lick one time during the course of the solo.  Later on I played another lick, and I took the two licks and put them together to create a whole lick and that became the bass line for the song. 

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HT: Do you find that you always start with a bass line or do you pick up a guitar or play some piano or what? 

GP:  Yes and no.  I do play guitar and I do play at piano.  I can play enough piano to accompany myself through some chord formulas and see if they work. 

HT:  How did the new live album come about?

GP:  Originally it was just going to be a trio gig, but Russell called Page and asked him to come and hang out, and, as Russell always does, he invited him to play with us.  On that run of dates, I had brought out my pro tools rig, and we multi-tracked every night, so that gig got recorded on my pro-tools set up.  It was almost a year later we were listening to the tapes and was like, “Wow! We got something here, let’s do something with this.” 

HT:  So there was no plan ahead of time to make a live album? 

GP:  No, and originally it wasn’t the band. It was management that came back and said, "you got to take a listen to this." 

HT: What was it about that set that really stood out for you?

GP:   I think this live record is a great example of all the different ideas musically that we all come from, and what we have been able to accomplish as a unit.  PBS crosses all kinds of musicals paths.  We are a seriously strong band that goes from blues to jazz to rock.

HT:  Moodoo definitely does that.  Do you have any plans to get together and write some more stuff and put together another studio album? 

GP:  Absolutely.  As a matter of fact we already have fourteen tracks sitting in the hole that we started over a year ago.   Brian Stoltz is a very active writer, he is in the studio like every day writing songs.   I spend a lot of time with my computer writing music. {pauses}  I can’t say what Russell does every day.  I hear from him periodically, but Russell is like a secret. {laughs} 

We have just been so busy lately it has been hard to find time to finish up.  PBS has been really busy for a while, and then I went off and did a session with Warren Haynes and John Scofield.  I am leaving soon to do a short tour of Europe with Scofield, and then I am doing a couple of dates with two of the members of original meters, Zig & Leo (drummer Zigaboo Modeliste & guitarist Leo Nocentelli).  

HT: Do you have a timetable for the new album?

GP:  We are still working on it.  Actually we are going to get some time to go back and work on it.  I think when I come back from Europe with Scofield I am taking off a week and then trying to get back into the studio, maybe ten days or so before Christmas and revisit what we have done. 

meters1.jpgHT:  Just the three of you guys or are you going to include any of your friends on the new album?  Page maybe?

GP:  The band hasn’t sat down and talked about that.  That is something that is definitely not off the table yet, we have just not spoken about it at this point.  And with Phish getting ready to go back out, getting Page to be able to commit to some more dates is going to be hard thing to do. 

I heard our management talking about seeing if they could get us an opening spot on some of the Phish dates. I am not sure how that will turn out, because if I recall Phish doesn’t really use an opener.

HT:  Over you career you have played with so many people.  Who is still out there you want to play with – new, old, what ever?

GP:  Well I don’t know all the players out there, but the guys that I do know I have just about played with all of them.  Last year on Jam Cruise if there were 65 musicians, I probably played with 63 of them.  Over the past fifteen, twenty years, I have had a chance to play with many of the young players, both inside and outside the “jam community.”  I have always wanted to play with Scofield and I am doing that now.  I also always love playing with Warren Haynes, and when he called me to come work on his solo record, I was ecstatic.

HT:  How do you feel about that label “jam community” and all the other names that are used to describe bands and their music?

GP:  I am not always that excited about the labels that they stick on musicians. I have always though that the label thing has been a good way to separate black and white musicians who play the same music, you know? 

The reality is, whoever is booking the shows and paying us will call us what they want and I have to live with that.  I would prefer to be just called a damn good musician.  But I am not sure they could put that on the marquee and sell it “George Porter Jr. – Damn Good Musician”.  People would say, “Great, what the hell is he playing?”

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