By Dennis Strazulo
Mill Valley Living had a chance to visit with Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, George Porter, Jr. in between two sold-out shows marking his triumphant return to Sweetwater Music Hall. It had been almost four years since he’d played Sweetwater, causing him to warmly greet the opening night crowd with a heartfelt “it’s good to be back.” Porter recalled the band’s last appearance when guitarist Brint Anderson had just left the band “but we came anyway. Bob Weir came out for a song and ended up playing the entire second set with the band,” referring to the original Grateful Dead member. A typical Sweetwater moment! The famed musician from New Orleans and original member of the 1960’s funk originator’s, The Meters, appeared this time with his full band – George Porter Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners. Porter, now 77 and recognized as one of music’s elite bass players, spoke about a connection between the San Francisco and New Orleans music scenes. “It seems there’s something to that,” he said, recalling The Meters were “very well received” when they made their first Bay Area appearance in 1970 playing multiple nights at a nightclub in The City. So much so, “we came back for another run just four or five months later and did a repeat.” It was the start of a long and continuing history of Porter playing with Bay Area musicians.
After his first return show at Sweetwater Porter made a point to mingle with “familiar faces” in the crowd before heading backstage, including finding a moment with local bass playing phenom, Angelina Saris, in attendance to admire one of her idols. “I feel very comfortable here,” he offered, “ to the point where I might have a setlist but know I can toss it and venture away. Last night I felt that way. This crowd is open to ‘top-of-the head’ stuff. I guess because it’s Bob’s place the audience is prone to hearing that anything might go.” He also emphasized no one screamed out a request during the show. “That was kind of cool,” he said. “I usually don’t talk much during shows and just play because I’m bad with words…though my mother always said I’d be fine if I’d just stop cussing”, Porter said with a laugh. “What made me talk last night is we ended up playing from The Meters old-school book.” As he told Sweetwater patrons, The Meters had a staple of 27 songs they recorded but never played live, many of them were hits but they were lost in time. About 10 years ago Porter & Runnin’ Pardners re-recorded those tracks and started playing them at live shows. “People were asking me for years to record those tracks. I thought I would leave that Meters stuff alone, but we went ahead and recorded 16 of the 27 tracks. That means there are 11 songs left,” he added, “so there needs to be a part two!”
Porter’s involvement with 7 Walkers, a 2009-10 collaboration with another member of The Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann, begged further discussion about Porter’s connection with “The Dead” community as part of his San Francisco bond. Speaking to the audience before busting out a jamming, Cajun-influenced version of Grateful Dead staple, They Love Each Other, Porter referenced this and sarcastically commented there are a lot of Dead songs he actually likes. Turning a bit more serious on the subject, he told us that as he continued to play with former Grateful Dead members, which also included Mickey Hart, “there were songs in their catalog that spoke to me and I just fell into them until they became part of my musical experience. Like Sugaree. Billy (Kreutzman) told me Sugaree is no longer a Dead song, it’s a Porter song,” he joked. He also referenced Deadhead favorite, Eyes of the World, saying, “I love that song! I don’t know why it came off to me the way it did, but I really like it and started singing it with my band on a regular basis. I now have about 20 Dead songs that are part of my repertoire.” It wasn’t always a clean experience learning the songs. He recalls current Dead & Co. Keyboardist, Jeff Chimenti, once gave him a Dead “cheat book” with chord charts, “but it was wrong,” he laughed. Louisiana legend “Papa Mali was calling for so many Dead songs when we played with 7 Walkers, Porter said, “I was learning on the gig…or not learning, just playing!” In the end, New Orleans and San Francisco music have melded quite nicely.
While enjoying local banter with Porter, we didn’t want to leave without recognizing one of his most important projects, Crying for Hope, the title track from his most recent studio album released in July 2021. That work was inspired by the continued racial tension in our country and was written from his own pain and experience witnessing the events of summer 2020. Porter was also compelled by his mother’s influence. She taught me “if I don’t use my voice I should not raise it” referencing a past time when he was less concerned about politics and didn’t bother to vote. With modesty and perhaps a hint of disappointment, Porter told us “Crying for Hope says something but it’s not the first time artists have tried to make a statement” – specifically referring to Marvin Gaye’s release of What’s Going On in 1971 – “it’s just a different melody.” But while he can’t understand why division in this country seems deeper than ever, he is certainly hopeful for a change – and thus, this beautiful work.