Review by Greg Haymes
“Step right up, come on in, if you’d like to take the grand tour…”
Hearing Aaron Neville – the golden voice of New Orleans’ First Family of Funk ‘n’ Soul – sing the classic heartbreaker by the late country music legend George Jones was a vivid reminder that the barriers between musical styles – between New Orleans and Nashville, for instance – are all just in our heads.
Now I don’t mean to get all “Kumbaya” here. It takes major talent to tackle a repertoire that stretches across genres to encompass vintage Brill Building R&B, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Reed’s blues, Burt Bacharach, Philly soul, street-corner doo-wop, a gospel hymn… and the George Jones tearjerker.
And it takes a real gift to put your own undeniable stamp on each and every one of those oh-so-diverse songs and make them your own.
But, of course, Aaron Neville’s voice is a genuine gift.
72-year-old Aaron Neville made his first area appearance without his brothers at MASS MoCA’s jam-packed Hunter Center in North Adams over Memorial Day weekend. Well, almost. As it turned out, older brother Charles Neville – a Berkshires resident – was also a member of Aaron’s band for the sold-out show.
Although I’ve witnessed the glory that is the Neville Brothers in concert at least a dozen times, I had only seen Aaron perform solo once before – back in 1995 at the FLY92 Summer Jam at the now long defunct Starlite Music Theatre, where he sang a short set accompanied only over-produced backing tapes. (I had quite intentionally avoided the Christmas extravaganza that paired Neville with Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan at the then Knickerbocker Arena in ’94, and his solo headlining set scheduled for Albany’s 1998 Tulip Festival was rained out.)
And as it turned out, Aaron Neville on his own was something more than simply revisiting the songs he sang in the Neville Brothers and mixing in some of his solo stuff along the way. Of course, he served up his signature hit “Tell It Like It Is” (sounding as glorious as ever 45 years after it cracked the Top 10) and showcased selections from his new doo-wop-laced album, My True Story, co-produced by Don Was and the Stones’ Keith Richards. But he also revved things up with a rollicking medley of “Big Boss Man”/”Hi Heel Sneakers” and dipped into the Meters’ songbag for a slippery second-line strut through “Love Slips Up On Ya.”
Fortunately, his band – drummer Earl Smith, Jr., keyboardist Michael Goods, guitarist Eric Struthers and bassist David C. Johnson, in addition to brother Charles – was as versatile as the set list was eclectic. They all imbued the tunes with just the right balance of smooth soul, dirty funk and the distinctive New Orleans groove.
Goods injected a dose of Crescent City boogie-woogie fever into “Work With Me, Annie,” and Charles led the band for three instrumental numbers scattered throughout the two-hour concert, stretching from “Take the A Train” to “Besame Mucho.” But if we’re handing out an MVP award, however, it goes to Smith, who not only kept the backbeat in the pocket, but who also very nearly matched Aaron’s heavenly falsetto with harmony vocals both sublime (“Don’t Know Much”) and sizzling (“Fever”).
The only real drawback to the show was a heavy-handed soundman, who occasionally leaned too hard on the echo for Aaron’s vocals – most notably on “Arriane.” The truth of the matter is that his voice doesn’t need special effects. Aaron Neville’s voice is a special effect.
THE AARON NEVILLE QUINTET SET LIST
Opening instrumental (band only)
MEDLEY: Stand By Me (Ben E. King)/Cupid (Sam Cooke)/There Goes My Baby (the Drifters)/Chain Gang (Sam Cooke)
Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
Congo Square (Neville Brothers)
Everybody Plays the Fool (The Main Ingredient)
Don’t Know Much
(Don’t Go) Please Stay (the Drifters)
My True Story (the Jive Five)
Love Slip Up On Ya (the Meters)
The Greatest Love (Allen Toussaint)
Baby, What You Want me to Do? (Jimmy Reed)
MEDLEY: This Magic Moment (the Drifters)/True Love (the Drifters)
Take the A Train (band only)
Arianne (Johnny Mathis)
MEDLEY: Big Boss Man (Jimmy Reed)/Hi Heel Sneakers (Tommy Tucker)
Bird On a Wire (Leonard Cohen)
A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke)
Work With Me, Annie (Hank Ballard)
The Grand Tour (George Jones)
Besame Mucho (band only)
Fever (Little Willie John)
Tell It Like It Is
MEDLEY: Down by the Riverside/When the Saints Go Marching In