Mention the name Aaron Neville and most fans will instantly think of the string of falsetto-soaked ballads he’s had hits with over the years dating back to his 1966 hit “Tell It Like It Is.” But with his most recent outing, 2016’s Apache, the septuagenarian vocalist has plugged himself into the funkier sound that defined his former life as front man for the now defunct Neville Brothers.
Normally a song interpreter, Neville joined forces with retro-soul producers Eric Krasno (guitarist for Soulive and Lettuce) and Dave Gutter (frontman for the Rustic Overtones) to co-write nearly all the songs on this project, making it only the second time in his 57-year recording career that the New Orleans native has gone down this path. Neville had no shortage of cherished memories to draw from in his richly lived life.
“It brought out another side of me; people were used to me doing a lot of ballads, but this is more gritty, and some of it has the New Orleans feel,” he said. “One song talks about my roots, ‘Stompin’ Ground.’ It names a lot of real people that were in my life at different points in time. Another one, ‘Orchid In The Storm,’ was inspired by my wife, Sarah; she’s been my orchid in a storm, and still is. Another song is ‘Heaven,’ from a poem I wrote a while back. My inspirations come from real things in life, and I have many more where these came from.”
Opening cut “Be Your Man” sets the tone with an insistent tempo, gnarly wah-wah guitar and punchy horn lines that make it sound like a lost outtake from the Superfly soundtrack. From here, Neville manages to wrangle everything from organ-goosed New Orleans struts reminiscent of Neville Brother Art’s legendary crew The Meters (a slinky “Stompin’ Ground”) and pure gospel-infused testifying (an ever-soulful “Heaven”) to a samba-ish, Sam Cooke ode to his wife (an endearing “Sarah Ann”) to the kind of flat-out funk that Daptone Records has been effectively resurrecting for the past couple of decades (the in-the-pocket jam “Hard to Believe”). Wrapping it all up in a perfect bow is the closing medley of traditional nuggets “Down By the Riverside/When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Neville’s solo career is fully front and center given that The Neville Brothers broke up in 2012, briefly reuniting in New Orleans for a 2015 farewell concert. The death of sibling Charles from pancreatic cancer back in April has sealed off this chapter even more for the younger Neville. That said, he looks back fondly at a simple childhood centered on street corner harmonizing and the eventual decision to launch The Neville Brothers with his siblings in the mid-1970s. Along the way, the inveterate music lover got to meet a number of his heroes.
“[I remember] hearing Clyde McPhatter sing ‘The Bells of St. Mary.’ That was a doo-wop Christmas song. Then there was Sonny Til and the Orioles and Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels and The Flamingos with ‘I’ll Be Home’ and ‘A Kiss From Your Lips’ and the Clovers ‘Ting a Ling,’ ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Devil or Angel.’ There was a smorgasbord [of songs]. It was like ice cream and cake together with all those harmonies. Back in those days, the vocals were the synthesizers,” he recalled. “[As for The Neville Brothers], it was a great era of history for us. We got started singing with my uncle, Big Chief Jolly in The Wild Tchoupitoulas, back in 1976. Up until then, we’d perform together in different groups, but never all together until we decided to form The Neville Brothers. [It all evovled from how] we’d always sit around the projects because everybody wanted to sing like Pookie. He was so smooth. I got to know him and Curtis Mayfield and those were some special times in my life. I got to meet [Pookie] before he died. He was staying in the D.C. area, and I called him up on stage to sing with me.”
For this particular tour, Neville is changing gears from his normal quintet to a more intimate experience provided by himself and keyboard player Michael Goods. Regardless of that fact, the funky crooner promises to deliver big for attendees.
“Fans can expect a fantastic show and they can expect to laugh, cry and cheer—all of that,” Neville said.
The Aaron Neville Duo will be appearing on Jan. 11 at Landmark on Main Street, 223 Main St., Port Washington. For more information, visit www.landmarkonmainstreet.org or call 516-767-6444.