Since it was developed in the late 1960s, roots rock has been a confusing genre. Reject ornate embellishments for something more folk, simpler, more blues – think Let it be and the Band: the name itself raises the question: What roots are we talking about? The Beatles, after all, perfected their versions of Chuck Berry in Germany. Mostly Canadians, the Band had a queasy affection for the Southern Confederacy. The origins of rock were clearly located in black America; however, the vast majority of artists associated with the back to basics movement were white. For them, “going back to their roots” meant making the music they had innovated sound more like the structure and sound they had created in the first place.
The phrase “roots rock” feels especially irrelevant in New Orleans, the Mississippi River delta where rock’n’roll, jazz, and blues supposedly began. In the early 1970s, the more progressive musicians of the swamp weren’t simplifying their sound. They were expanding it with traditions from their own communities: The Meters flirted with second-line rhythms, while Dr. John dosed his swamp shamanism with Mardi Gras pomp. Rediscovering the roots was silly: these artists had never parted with them.
It is still a bit disarming to hear the naked beauty of Other side, the excellent solo debut of guitarist and Meters co-founder Leo Nocentelli, largely recorded in 1971 but first released this year by Light in the Attic. Nocentelli wrote the album for a short time when the Meters parted ways. He was in his early twenties, in love with folkster James Taylor and worried about the future of his career. Maybe that’s why he was trying to be a singer and songwriter, although his band has already expanded the vocabulary of funk, achieved genuine success with “Cissy Strut” and composed songs that would later become a treasure for hip-hop producers. The Meters, however, were more ubiquitous than famous or rich. Its democratic operation meant that Nocentelli’s contributions could often be buried, even if he was perhaps the group’s most consistent composer and engine, his palm-muted rhythms as regular as a train, heading into the future of pop. . Nocentelli’s leadership as the leader of a gang is no surprise. The impact is this: for lack of a better term, Other side It is a roots rock album.
Spanning nine originals and a tender cover of Elton John, the music mixes mellifluous, wandering acoustic guitar and country stomp; only an experimental hip-hop producer could achieve a workable beat with most of these songs. The nudity of Nocentelli’s lyrics is unprecedented in the expanded universe of the Meters; the disc includes perhaps the most poignant love song, “You’ve Become a Habit”, that any member of the group has recorded. And although it may seem out of step with the New Orleans scene, Other side It came from its center, designed in part by R&B entrepreneur Cosimo Matassa and littered with local heroes playing the role of chameleon session men: two members of the Meters, George Porter Jr. and Ziggy Modeliste, play bass and drums. , respectively; Allen Toussaint sits at the piano; and on various themes, the great jazzman James Black plays the drums. The 35 minutes of the album are a document of a city, a medium and a sensitivity, all the more lucid because they feel as if they came from another place completely.
As is often the case with lost recordings, the story of Other sideThe dangerous fifty-year road to wider distribution is so tortuous that the narrative threatens to scribble on the melodies themselves. After Nocentelli shelved the project, because the Meters landed a record contract with Warner in 1972, Toussaint retained the teachers in their own Sea-Saint studios, and then Hurricane Katrina destroyed the legendary Clematis Street shelter and three quarters parts of the tapes that were there.
A historic arts channel leads from New Orleans to Los Angeles; Nocentelli himself lived in Southern California for years, and musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Frank Ocean made the journey west in hopes of finding broader perspectives. This is also like Other side survived. In 1995, Toussaint sold Sea-Saint to a label publisher and marketer named Bill Valenziano, and as Sam Sweet reported in the Los Angeles Times, Valenziano moved the surviving teachers, who number in the thousands, to a storage facility near his home in California, only to neglect them. “I had checked in my head that 2020 would be the year I would take care of this,” the octogenarian told Sweet in 2019, “And if I can’t find a new owner … do you have time to build a bonfire on the beach? ? “
Fortunately, someone transported a modicum of the archive to another facility, which shipped, and the content ended up in a swap meeting in the Los Angeles beach suburb of Torrance, as box digger Mike Nishita brought them home, shocked to discover both. classic records from the ’70s and unpublished material believed to be lost forever. A producer for someone Sweet describes as “one of the most successful rappers in the world” offered Nishita $ 250,000 for the entire tour, wanting to use a bunch of unheard music from the most sampled era of hip-hop to create unique beats. . Nishita declined, and now, Other side see the light of day. The record feels like a document of what happened, and also what could have happened: an acoustic career with the heart on the sleeve of a funk icon whose feelings always seemed to be hidden in his riffs.
Other side it also has a narrative. It traces the loose story of a young man reeling from a breakup, torn between his romantic heartbreak and an intense, perhaps doomed, desire to succeed in the music business. The first song, “Thinking of the Day”, uses a warm voice close to the microphone while setting the album’s themes: “Thinking about tomorrow / But tomorrow never comes / I think I’ll be thinking about tomorrow / Until my day is done.” We have sketches of frustrated dockworkers working the weekend on the Mississippi – the wool-dyed blues rocker “Riverfront” – and farmers imagining leaving their daily routines for the big city (“Pretty Mittie”). We see a picture of dreams as a young black man in the South, and how aspirations have a ceiling due to both circumstance and choice. “We are sentenced to life imprisonment / By our own convictions,” Nocentelli tells us in a poem included in the album booklet, an apt description of his often seemingly disinterested career with the Meters and beyond: If he ever asked his teammates of the band the center of attention, he sure never got it.
Reinforcing the lyrical themes are the virtuous low-key performances, the same quality that gives the early Meters records their power, although these songs are from a completely different vein. Modeliste’s rim shots on “Thinking of the Day” are muted and unpretentious; Toussaint’s organ trills fill the space on “Riverfront”; airy backing vocals elevate “Tell Me Why” to a full-bodied pop song; Nocentelli’s dense selection makes the “Your Song” outro feel climactic, even without the bloated strings of the Elton John original; James Black gives a shaky force to “Give Me Back My Loving,” and Nocentelli’s voice has a pissed-off personality throughout. In the aforementioned “You’ve Become a Habit,” about a young man who falls in love with a sex worker named Fancy, his guitar and singing smoke their way to a rare and sacred place. Each part of the song hits someone sadly resigned to one-sided love, the words themselves the insecure whispers of the young and confused rising among the waves.
Precious if it is tied to the era, Other side It comes with a certain sadness, thanks to the content, but also because we know what happened next. Nocentelli had an excellent second act with the Meters, however his composition benefited him in a limited way; like many artists, particularly black ones, he was scammed out of substantial royalties. Fascinatingly, Other side begins and ends with lyrics that describe a song as an interpersonal gift. Ultimately, this gift took the form of a fragile physical object, but like all gifts, it suggests something about generosity itself, how the giver is exposed without a guarantee of anything in return. Leo Nocentelli gave us his music, which at one point probably felt like everything he had. We now accept him as a relic, a remnant of a vital culture in constant danger of slipping into the past, and a voice so powerful that it must be part of what we remember in the future.
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