Funk that matters comes Runnin’ into Charlotte

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George Porter Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners
The Double Door Inn
Charlotte, North Carolina
August 14, 2010

The opportunity to catch the funk wizardry of George Porter Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners at the legendary Double Door Inn, near downtown Charlotte, NC was a chance to bear witness to history unfolding.  Like entering a shrine to music, walking through the – yes, double – doors, of the Inn one is greeted with reminders of majesties past, and the promise of bliss to come.

Established in 1973, the list of musicians who have graced the stage is noteworthy and eclectic, ranging from Eric Clapton to Unknown Hinson.  The walls are covered with signed, framed promotional materials that trumpet the club’s storied past loud and clear.  The weight of the years of sonic explosions hits you instantly, an echoing gravity of greatness that lends an air of respectability to any and all performers who play the venue.

ap1.jpgGeorge Porter Jr.’s authority on all things funk-related is absolute and unquestionable.  Since having a bass thrust into his teenaged hands nearly a half century ago, Porter has spent all the years since carving a place for himself on the Mount Rushmore of Funk music. The underlying tone and message of Funk is appreciation in contrast to the build and release central themes of Rock and Roll and the mad mathematics of structure and melody that boil down to Jazz. Funk celebrates the raw joy of living, of embracing the collective unconscious beat that causes hooves to move to the grooves. Music has the power to set the heaviest of hearts free, and funk is the sound of a spirit soaring, flying free at last. For the few short hours that Mr. Porter and his band held court, the crowd seemed to vibrate and levitate, moving together as one organism, a single-celled mass of dancing feet and waving arms.

Tasked with the enviable job of warming up an already hot crowd, Actual Proof (recently named Charlotte’s best band by Creative Loafing ) proved worthy of such an honor almost instantly.  With an eclectic, jam centered sound, they were led by Eric Mullis, an old style showman adorned in a spiffy white shirt, tie, and pant combo.  While he twisted and contorted himself into various pretzel shapes as he switched between a vibraphone and a small keyboard organ interface with ease, his facial expression ran the uninterrupted gamut of grimaces and grins.  On guitar, Jeremy Gamba kept a constant and slinky funk wash of sweet strumming alive and thriving while drummer Scott Brower provided a solid and snappy ground for their sound to be built upon.  Based in the Charlotte area, Absolute Proof had a vocal local contingent of converts and made a few new ones as well as their set progressed.

After finishing the set with a hard charging flourish, Mullis and company quickly set to the task of clearing their instruments and amplifiers and immediately took to joining the crowd. They gathered as close to the stage as the now packed room would allow, making the seamless change from band to fan.  They knew, like the swelling crowd, that a bottom end spectacle was about to unfold.

"The funkiest man alive" as called by some, Mr. Porter and whatever band or plethora of other trios and combos he has joined or chaired over his vast career is a rare commodity in our world: A sure thing.  His reputation is rock solid, and as whichever group of players who are fortunate enough to find themselves playing with him will tell you, you give it your all with George and receive nothing short of full reciprocity in return.

gpj1.jpgThe Runnin’ Pardners set started and instantly the dance floor was alive with motion.  Porter, employing his trademarked style of pop and snap, sat squarely in the heart of the mix, omnipresent in the music, yet never over powering his collaborators’ efforts. Rather he served as a composer in the jam, allowing them all to play together as a unit, rather than fronting them as his band. On saxophone, Khris Royal has taken a break from the Dark Matter to bring his stellar sax skills to the show.  Mixing in some light percussion work and some mind bending runs on his electronic wind instrument, Royal was impressive.  The EWI’s ability to seamlessly couple humanity’s most basic need (air) and digital manipulation was as mentally striking as it was easy on the ear.  The smoky saxophone riffs provided excellent counterpoint to George’s thundering bass, and Mr. Porter bent the strings of his bass guitar to their breaking point, wringing every last ounce of sound from each note.

As the set grew into the night, Keyboardist Michael Lemmler filled the air with spacious chords and tinkling trills, the first big moment of the night hit, a blend of the Meters classic "Hey Pocky A-Way" which drew a raucous cheer from the packed house.  Porter trodded down the vetted path he that he blazed himself years earlier in the writing of the seminal tune with The Meters and the house was jumping.  As the throng leaped, George merrily turned in circles as he shook the foundations of the city block with the raw emotive playing for which he is world famous.

On the heels of the generated heat and energy, the band infused the next songs with a building intensity as sideman and funkster extraordinaire Brint Anderson led a raging sing-a-long of "Sneaking Sally through the Alley." As if on cue, the entire crowd began cheering at a decibel level that surely could be heard from blocks away.

gpj2.jpgReaching into the vault, Mr. Porter has recently recorded 16 songs written by The Meters back in their heyday, but never recorded, until now.  The band played two of the new songs, (which are available for free download on Mr. Porter’s website) and with a rumbling of the snare, Terrence Houston quickly commanded all eyes in the room.  However, rather than try and impress with a speed filled drum solo, he showed chops above and beyond the norm, through his rolling snare runs and splashy cymbal work. Mr. Porter then took the mic to share the things that made him happy, chiefly being married to the love of his life for 42 years and playing with his friends.

With this tide of good cheer, the staple number, "Sing a Happy Song", ensued as Porter sang while he played with a palpable sense of love and joy.  The attendees responded in kind, boogieing and singing along with the tune’s central message, and echoing of the heart of Funk itself, "Don’t let the world get to you, there’s always a fresh start around the corner.  When it all gets too much, drop your cares away and let the music fill your heart and soul with love."  As this simple message echoed and eventually dissipated, so did the evening’s festivities.

After the show, George took a few minutes to mingle with the mass of fans who had come out to see him, some from as far away as Kentucky and even one who made the journey from his hometown of New Orleans.  The respect and admiration paid him seemed to truly touch him, and his smile was as big as the sound he makes with his bass, and just as heartwarming.

Click the thumbnail for more of Rex Thomson ‘s photos from the show

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