The Neville Brothers have been playing music together for more than 30 years now, but of course, they’ve been together a lot longer than that.
As Cyril declared at the end of their free concert in Albany’s Riverfront Park on Thursday, August 6, “Art Neville. Charles Neville. Aaron Neville. Me Neville. You Neville.”
They are brothers. And we’re all brothers. The Neville Brothers.
There’s no question that time is catching up with the Nevilles. At the age of 71, keyboardist Art is the eldest, and the rest of the brothers are all in their 60s now. And, let’s face it, they don’t pack quite the same musical punch that they used to.
Fortunately, the Nevilles’ music has always been more about the groove than the punch, and there isn’t another band in the land that can lay down the syncopated sizzle of a New Orleans parade groove like the Nevilles.
On Thursday, they lit the fuse with the opening volley of “Fire on the Bayou” and “Voodoo,” but percussionist Cyril turned the burner up a couple of notches with “Brother Jake.”
The Neville Brothers have never had anything actually approaching a hit song, so for most of the uninitiated, the focus is all on Aaron, the band’s sublime singer, who even at the age of 68 still sounds like an angel and looks like he could be starting linebacker for the Saints. He’s not only scored hits with his Linda Ronstadt duets, but, of course, he landed in the Top 10 on his own back in 1966 with “Tell It Like It Is,” one of the last true doo-wop nuggets.
He sang that nugget again on Thursday, and the song simply oozed out of him, effortlessly and full of grace. He also applied his swooping falsetto to such pop hits of yesterday as the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool,” Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and best-of-the-bunch Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile.”
I’m not sure that we actually needed to hear brother Charles’ instrumental rendition of “Besame Mucho” served up with a “Yellow Moon”-like Crescent City stutter strut, but it gave him a showcase for his sultry sax playing.
The heart and fire of the Nevilles these days, however, rests in Cyril’s hands, and after merely smoldering for a handful of mid-set songs, the band turned it on full-flame when Cyril grabbed the microphone for “Tipitina’s.” Thanks to Cyril and monster drummer Willie Green the momentum just kept building through the medley of “Brother John/Iko Iko/Jambalaya” and the booty-shaking, show-closing “Shake Your Tambourine.”
As expected, Aaron unleashed “Amazing Grace” as an encore accompanied by the perfectly church-like keyboards of Michael Goods. Then Cyril took the reins once again to wrap up the concert with the celebratory medley of Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”
I’ve seen the Nevilles more than a dozen times. I’ve seen them on a Mississippi riverboat in New Orleans. I’ve leaned on the piano at a party while Aaron played and sang “The Mickey Mouse Club Theme.” And, no, this wasn’t the best Nevilles’ show that I’ve seen.
But when you’re as good as these guys and you’re locked into the groove, even one of their B-/C+ shows is better than 90 percent of everything else that’s going on out there.
Me Neville. You Neville.
THE NEVILLE BROTHERS SETLIST
Fire on the Bayou
Everybody Plays the Fool
Ain’t No Use
Tell It Like It Is
Brother John/Iko Iko/Jambalaya
Shake Your Tambourine
One Love/People Get Ready
Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk. You can see more of his photographs from this concert on Flickr.