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Leo Nocentelli – Another Side (Light in the Attic)

24 September 2022

This compelling record from Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli is out of character in a very special way, and it also comes with an astonishing origin story. After the Meters’ third album Struttin’ arrived in 1970, their label home at Josie Records folded and the band members went their separate ways. Nocentelli had indulged a growing enthusiasm by acquiring a nylon-string Goya acoustic guitar and practicing classical and folk styles. A principal songwriter for the Meters, Nocentelli had also been writing songs not intended for the band at home that were centered upon his acoustic guitar. These songs were recorded primarily in 1971 at Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City Studio. Eventually, Reprise Records expressed interest in new Meters material, which led to 1972’s acclaimed comeback album Cabbage Alley. Nocentelli’s self-described “country and western” album got back-burnered and eventually forgotten as his Meters activity gained fresh momentum. Decades passed. Following flooding due to Hurricane Katrina, the acoustic tapes were moved with many others to Los Angeles from Jazz City and Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans. The tapes were split among two storage facilities, one of which defaulted. The foreclosed storage locker contents were purchased at auction and made their way to a swap meet in Torrance, California, where they were discovered by regular patron and Beastie Boys associate Mike Nishita. News eventually reached Nocentelli, who contacted Nishita to discuss the long-lost album’s release.

The album’s charmed re-emergence shouldn’t be taken for granted by anyone who appreciates the rich musical treasures of New Orleans, southern soul, and heartfelt working-class storytelling. Don’t expect the Meters’ signature second line grooves or the soulful electric guitar licks that have earned Nocentelli’s standing among the world’s premiere architects of funk guitar. This album truly does show Another Side of the versatile musician. It’s a revealing set of singer-songwriter fare by a musician in his mid-20s, graced by inimitable instrumental sensibilities. Surprising but period-appropriate touchstones include Bill Withers’ acoustic soul, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, and above all James Taylor (Nocentelli acknowledges a fascination with 1970’s Sweet Baby James, and its songs including “Fire & Rain”). Other sources include the sound of mentor Toussaint. Unsurprisingly, there are familiar names involved. Meters veteran George Porter Jr. adds his bass, and Toussaint’s presence on keyboards further elevates several of the arrangements. Fellow Meters-man Zig Modeliste drums on certain tracks, but most are covered by Ellis Marsalis’ coveted but mercurial drummer James Black.

“Thinking of the Day” is a pensive acoustic folk-rock track. Nocentelli’s mellow and soulful voice sings a simple sentiment, anticipating a heartfelt reunion with an absent lover. “Riverfront” is replete with New Orleans funk and Ry Cooder-styled blues-rock, as Nocentelli sings about the hard life of a working stiff doing manual labor along the river and trying to catch a break. Toussaint’s grooving electric piano is reminiscent of Billy Preston, adding soul to Nocentelli’s acoustic rhythm. Liner notes reveal that the song was inspired by singer Aaron Neville’s early job offloading bananas at the waterfront before playing music became a viable means of making rent. The hurting song “I Wanna Cry” finds the singer’s character struggling to move on from a broken relationship. The mood recalls easygoing and heartfelt pop a la Jim Croce’s “Operator.” A farmer tells his wife that he wants to trade bone-wearying work on the land for an easier job in the city during “Pretty Mittie.” Nocentelli carries the song solo, accompanying his vocal with simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and his tapping foot.

The uptempo Southern pop of “Give Me Back My Loving” has the album’s catchiest arrangement, suggesting a fusion of seemingly incongruous but catchy sounds by Jerry Reed and Phish. The song’s chorus is full of rich vocal harmonies set to a driving rhythm and Toussaint’s sparkling piano. “Getting Nowhere” has a gentle but irresistibly soaring chorus melody, which Nocentelli sings about the quiet frustration of watching peers pass him by in a career that can’t seem to soar itself. While Porter’s bass bubbles along, Nocentelli’s lyric describes a young man adrift and looking for trustworthy advice. “Till I Get There” is an interesting blend of lively country-folk with Nocentelli’s soul-infused vocal and an R&B chorus. This is the one song on Another Side to feature Nocentelli’s understated but sharp electric lead guitar playing. His chops with his Gibson clearly didn’t slump while he was taking pages from the books of Segovia and Taylor.

The laid-back strummer “You’ve Become a Habit” describes a character’s helpless obsession with “Fancy,” a lady of the evening. Nocentelli drew the idea from the film Irma la Douce starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. The pensive and spiritual “Tell Me Why” seeks the power behind everyday miracles. Another Side closes with a sensitive version of Elton John’s classic 1970 single “Your Song,” recorded by Nocentelli when it was a fresh track. The arrangement is marked by Nocentelli’s tumbling fingerpicking, Porter’s fat bass, and Nocentelli’s heartfelt vocal. The guitarist pairs an optimistic acoustic guitar solo with a carefree whistled melody.

To be honest, Another Side is unpolished and sounds like a good set of rough demos made in preparation for full production at a big studio. 50 years after being shelved, however, the rough-hewn presentation of the young Nocentelli’s straightforward songs is a major part of the charm. This buried treasure and funky folk record is a unique gift in the world of popular music.