“There was nothing in my psyche to prepare me for the fact that I’m still playing and that I’m still liked,” George Porter Jr. said recently.
The legendary bassist for The Meters, The Runnin’ Pardners, and a host of other New Orleans funk bands was thinking about when he first started playing, when the future wasn’t his concern. He first got paid to play when he was 8 — “That gig paid a dollar and a half” — and he started playing regularly when he was 15. He was the roadie for a band that played fraternity house parties, and he filled in for the drummer and bass player when they needed to take a break.
When asked what he thought about spending half of a century playing music professionally, he paused then laughed. “I never thought about it with the ‘C’ word attached.”
The occasion for the reflection is Porter’s annual birthday show at The Howlin’ Wolf. Friday night, he’ll spend his 67th birthday on stage, just as he’s spent so many other nights and milestones in his life. The shows have become opportunities for Porter to honor his musical past and frequently showcase the breadth of his music.
This year, Porter’s been musically excited playing trio dates, so he’ll start with a set performing with Runnin’ Pardners guitarist Brint Anderson and drummer Terrence Houston, and follow that with a funk fusion trio set with keyboard player Mike Lemmler replacing Anderson. Then he’ll bring out the Runnin’ Pardners present and past.
2014 ended one of the most difficult chapters in Porter’s career as in August he and the band PBS won a lawsuit against former manager, Highsteppin’ Production, over money Highsteppin’ thought it was owed by the band.
“The last four or five years with this PBS debacle slammed me against the wall and brought me back down to earth,” Porter said. Before that, his income had stabilized at a comfortable level that allowed him and his wife of 47 years, Ara, to have the kind of freedom you’d like for your graying years. “With all my royalties and 80 percent of my income being seized until I filed for bankruptcy, a whole lot of things changed for us. We had to figure out how to live the way were used to but with less. I have to give my wife the hat’s off for being able to keep the household structured the way I’m used to living. She’s my hero. I’m sure she worried about it more than I do. Part of my sobriety is that I don’t worry about things that I can’t control.”
The lawsuit was particularly unfortunate because it came during a professionally good time for Porter.
Prior to it, he released the album “It’s Life” in 2007, and it reflected a man comfortable with his age and his place in the world. In 2011, he released “Can’t Be the Funk,” a collection of songs by The Meters that he felt didn’t get their due.
He’s proud of those interpretations and the leaner version of The Runnin’ Pardners performing on the album. At times, the group has included horns and multiple keyboard players, but the current lineup is a Meters-like guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard, augmented with Khris Royal on saxophone.
He’s currently working on a new EP that will be released digitally in the new year.
“Right now, financially, I can’t put out a whole record,” Porter said. He has a song he cowrote with Brint Anderson, and one he cowrote with Anders Osborne.
“If I have to write lyrics, it’s going to be about getting some booty, and there’s enough of that out there,” he said, laughing.
Working with Osborne was a particular joy. He came to Porter’s house, where the two talked about the late Snooks Eaglin and some other friends of Porter who’ve passed away. As they talked and listened to the instrumental track Porter had already created, Osborne asked questions and jotted down notes. “Then he said, ‘OK, let’s put this down,’” Porter recalled.
He had never seen anyone work like that and wasn’t sure they had anything, but the two went to the recording suite on the third floor of Porter’s house and worked it out.
“An hour-and-a-half later, he said, ’See you later, bye.’ He took my life and put it into that song.”
For someone who seems so at home on stage, Porter’s love of the studio seems surprising.
Then again, with The Meters he was part of countless recording sessions produced by Allen Toussaint at SeaSaint Studios, including Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley.” He would hang out in the control room after the musicians had left to learn the process of how the music was actually put on tape, and that experience has served him well, even if he’s now working on a computer with ProTools.
“I always knew that I’d be part of the recording end of things.”
Still, Porter’s love of music is fueled by the spontaneous interactions between musicians that only take place on stage, and he’s thinking about his live future.
The funk fusion trio with Lemmler and Houston is close enough to music played on the jam band festival circuit that he thinks it will have legs. His age and health have yet to slow him down, and he’s still one of the last people in the room, packing up the gear like the roadie he was.
“I think at two-and-a-half hours, I’m peaking,” Porter said, and his shows are generally longer than that. “But when I get home, I go down hard.”