Since it developed in the late 1960s, roots rock has been a confusing genre. Rejecting ornate frills for something folksier, simpler, bluesier—think Let It Be and the Band—the name itself raises the question: Just whose roots are we talking about? The Beatles, after all, honed their Chuck Berry covers in Germany. Mostly Canadians, the Band had a queasy affection for the Confederate South. Rock’s origins were clearly located in Black America—yet the vast majority of the artists associated with the back-to-basics movement were white. For them, “returning to their roots” meant making the music they had innovated sound more like the structure and sound they had cribbed in the first place.
The phrase “roots rock” feels especially irrelevant in New Orleans, the delta of the Mississippi River along where rock‘n’roll, jazz, and the blues all supposedly began. At the dawn of the 1970s, the most forward-thinking musicians in the bayou 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 roots was nonsense—these artists had never parted with them.
It’s still a bit disarming to hear the stripped-down beauty of Another Side, the excellent solo debut by Meters’ guitarist and co-founder Leo Nocentelli, recorded largely in 1971 but issued for the first time this year by Light in the Attic. Nocentelli wrote the album during a brief span when the Meters were split up. He was in his mid-twenties, enamored of folkster James Taylor, and concerned with his career’s future. Perhaps this was why he was trying to be a singer-songwriter—though his band already broadened the vocabulary of funk, scored a bonafide hit with “Cissy Strut,” and composed songs that would later become a treasure trove for hip-hop producers. The Meters, though, were more ubiquitous than they were famous or rich. Their democratic workings meant Nocentelli’s contributions could often be buried, even if he was perhaps the group’s most consistent songwriter as well as their motor, his palm-muted grooves as regular as a train, headed for pop’s future. Nocentelli’s command as a bandleader comes as no surprise. The shock is this: For lack of a better term, Another Side is a roots rock record.
Spanning nine originals and a tender Elton John cover, the music blends mellifluous, roving acoustic guitar and country stomp; only an experimental hip-hop producer could make a viable beat out of most of these songs. The nakedness of Nocentelli’s lyrics is unprecedented in the Meters’ expanded universe—the record includes maybe the most touching love song, “You’ve Become a Habit,” any member of the group ever recorded. And while it may seem out of step with the New Orleans scene, Another Side came from its center, engineered in part by R&B impresario Cosimo Matassa and rife with local heroes filling the role of chameleonic session men: Two members of the Meters, George Porter Jr. and Ziggy Modeliste, play the bass and drums, respectively; Allen Toussaint sits in on the piano; and on several tracks, jazz great James Black plays drums. The album’s 35 minutes are a document of a city, milieu, and sensibility, all the more lucid because they feel as though they came from another place entirely.
As often happens with lost recordings, the story of Another Side’s fifty-year, hazardous path to wider distribution is so winding that the narrative threatens to scrawl over the tunes themselves. After Nocentelli sidelined the project, because the Meters scored a record deal with Warner in 1972, Toussaint held the masters at his own Sea-Saint Studios, and then Hurricane Katrina destroyed the legendary Clematis Street haven and three-quarters of the tapes housed there.
A storied artistic pipeline 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 westward trek in the hope of finding wider prospects. This, too, is how Another 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 masters, numbering in the thousands, to a storage facility near his California home, only to neglect them. “I had checked in my head that 2020 would be the year that I deal with this,” the octogenarian told Sweet in 2019, “And if I can’t find a new owner….do you have time to have a bonfire at the beach?”
Luckily, someone transported a modicum of the archive to another facility, which foreclosed and the contents ended up at a swap meet in the beachy L.A. suburb of Torrance, how crate digger Mike Nishita lugged them home, shocked to discover both classic records from the ’70s and unreleased material thought to be forever lost. A producer for someone Sweet describes as “One of the world’s most successful rappers” offered Nishita $250,000 for the whole haul, wanting to use a bunch of unheard music from hip-hop’s most sampled era to create unique beats. Nishita declined, and now, Another Side sees the light of day. The record feels like a document of what happened, and also what could have happened—a heart-on-your-sleeve acoustic career from a funk icon whose feelings always seemed to be hidden in his riffs.
Another Side has a narrative, too. It traces a loose tale of a young man, reeling from a break-up, riven between his romantic angst and an intense, perhaps doomed desire to make it in the music business. The first song, “Thinking of the Day,” uses warm, close-mic’d vocals while setting up the record’s themes: “Thinking about tomorrow/But tomorrow never comes/I guess I’ll be thinking about tomorrow/Until my day is done.” We have sketches of frustrated dock workers working for the weekend on the Mississippi—the dyed-in-the-wool blues rocker “Riverfront”—and farmers imagining leaving their daily routines for the big city (“Pretty Mittie”). We see a tableau of dreaming as a young Black man in the south, and how aspirations have a ceiling because of both circumstances and choice. “We are sentenced to life/By our own convictions,” Nocentelli tells us in a poem included in the album booklet, an apt description of his often selfless-seeming career with the Meters and beyond: If he ever asked his bandmates for the spotlight, he sure never received it.
Bolstering the lyrical themes are low-key virtuosic performances, the same quality that give the early Meters’ records their power, though these songs are in a completely different vein. Modeliste’s rim shots on “Thinking of the Day” are muted and unassuming; Toussaint’s organ trills fill out the space of “Riverfront”; airy backing vocals elevate “Tell Me Why” into a full-bodied pop song; Nocentelli’s dense picking makes the outro of “Your Song” feel climactic, even without the strings swells of Elton John’s original; James Black gives highlight “Give Me Back My Loving” a shambling force, and Nocentelli’s voice has a warbly personality throughout. On the aforementioned “You’ve Become a Habit,” about a young man who falls in love with a sex worker named Fancy, his guitar playing and singing thread their way like smoke to someplace hallowed and rare. Every part of the song strikes at someone unhappily resigned to one-sided love, the words themselves the unsure whispers of the young and confused rising through the billows.
Gorgeous if era-bound, Another Side comes with a certain sadness, thanks to the content, but also because we know what happened next. Nocentelli had a sterling second act with the Meters, yet his songwriting benefited him in limited ways—like many artists, particularly Black ones, he was cheated out of substantial royalties. Fascinatingly, Another Side starts and ends with lyrics that describe a song as an interpersonal gift. Ultimately, this gift took the form of a fragile physical object, yet like all presents, it suggests something about generosity itself, how the giver is left exposed without an assurance of anything in return. Leo Nocentelli gave us his music, which at one point probably felt like all he had. Now we accept it as an heirloom, a remnant of a vital culture constantly in danger of slipping into the past, and a voice so powerful it must be part of what we remember in the future.
Buy: Rough Trade
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