On a mild December afternoon, guitarist Leo Nocentelli sits outside Tipitina’s, his favorite venue in the world, basking in New Orleans: the call and response of sirens. Wind rustling an oak tree. An old acquaintance who exits a beat-up pickup to wrap him in an embrace. And, especially, the memories, of which there are many.
All in all, it’s good to be home. An original member of pioneering New Orleans funk band the Meters, Nocentelli has moved back to his hometown after 33 years in Los Angeles.
“The euphoria of being back here is overwhelming,” he says. “For somebody to say, ‘I know how that feels’ — they don’t. They’d have to experience it. You’d have to be gone from a place like New Orleans for a long time to experience it.”
To announce his return, he’s assembled an all-star homecoming show at Tipitina’s on Thursday. Scheduled guests include Irma Thomas, Deacon John, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Big Chief Alfred Doucette, Cyril Neville, the Soul Rebels and the Jamal Batiste Band. Nocentelli plans to cap off the night with his own set, backed by bassist Tony Hall, drummer Raymond Weber and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. WWL-TV morning show co-anchor Eric Paulsen will emcee.
“I want to do this,” he says, “to show the people in the city that I’m back in a big way.”
Nocentelli was 14 years old when Allen Toussaint hired him to play on Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony.” From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, his own recordings with the Meters laid down the bedrock of slinky Big Easy funk. His nimble guitar licks and Art Neville’s singsong organ rode atop elastic grooves courtesy of bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste.
The Meters had a steady gig at the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street; a few doors down, the Gunga Den hosted an unknown singer-songwriter named Jimmy Buffett. Years later, after the Meters broke up, Buffett hired Nocentelli to fill in for his regular guitarist, Joseph Leo, who had taken a temporary job with Kim Carnes, of “Bette Davis Eyes” fame.
The Buffett tour ended in Los Angeles. Nocentelli stayed, anticipating an encore. But a call from Buffett’s tour manager informed him that Joseph Leo had returned. “Where does that leave me?” Nocentelli wondered.
It left him in L.A. For a while, his Meters ré sumé gained him entrée into the clique of first-call L.A. studio musicians. Eventually, the work tapered off. He still made royalties from his oft-sampled and licensed Meters recordings. And he performed around the world with versions of the Meters or his own projects.
But even after three decades, the pull of home remained strong. He’d visit two or three times a year, always during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, even without a gig at the Fair Grounds.
“The more I came here, the more I didn’t want to leave. L.A. was OK. But it was a lot of sitting around asking, ‘What time does my next flight leave to go play a show somewhere?’”
Another complaint: the weather. “The redundancy of the great weather was sickening. I grew up in New Orleans — you have cold days, hot days and in between. L.A. was constant sunshine. I wanted some gloomy weather.”
At age 69, he concluded, the time had come to move back to the Big Easy. “At my age, you start to feel your mortality. I have to do what I want to do.”
He still makes a steady income from the Meters catalog. Following years of legal wrangling, the Meters now own 50 percent of their master recordings and 50 percent of their publishing rights. Thus, when the obscure single “Stretch a Rubber Band” turned up in a Nationwide Insurance commercial, he got paid. He could live on his royalties if he wanted. “But I live way above my means,” he says, “so I have to do other things.”
His primary outlet of late has been the Icons of Funk, with Parliament-Funkadelic veterans Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Fred Wesley on trombone; they’re booked for the 2016 Jazz Fest.
And he’s finishing a self-financed recording with such guest stars as Peter Gabriel, whom Nocentelli has known since contributing to Gabriel’s 1992 album “Us.” Another track features both Harry Connick Jr. and Allen Toussaint. Other collaborators include George Duke, Kirk Whalum, Stanley Clarke and Trombone Shorty.
Meanwhile, he’s getting resettled in his hometown. He returned in time to attend Toussaint’s Nov. 20 memorial at the Orpheum Theatre; he remains “deeply humbled” that Toussaint wrote a song about him a few years ago, titled “Leo.”
“A lot of great musicians left here after Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to come back and contribute. Whatever I could do to turn the (entertainment) industry’s head to New Orleans, that’s what I’m here for.”
As the afternoon outside Tipitina’s winds down, he takes a call from a festival promoter in Virginia. A gig might be in the offing. “I would have booked a flight to Virginia from Los Angeles. Now I’ll book a flight from here.”