Aaron Neville isn’t all that sure when he will return to New Orleans. "Right now I’ll leave it as a memory, and remember it as the city that I grew up in," he remarked after the chaos called Katrina had passed. That "Big Easy" gumbo of music and food and style has taken a direct hit in recent times – especially the musicians. It has touched them all in very personal ways.
Those who still have gigs are the "lucky" ones. Even if they’ve lost their homes and, as is the case with many, are starting over at 70, they are able to spread the healing and rhythmic quality of their music throughout the world. It is by this process that the torch is being carried for those who came out of the hurricane without instruments at all — and, in many instances, a waning sliver of hope.
So, in the wake of this tempest, you have Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Neville Brothers, among many others, staying on the road to spread the gospel. They are keeping the faith of Buddy Bolden, Satchmo, Jelly Roll and Professor Longhair. The groove is alive& and, most importantly, the pilgrims continue to flock.
Sharing space with these musicians and their art can be a most fulfilling encounter. The power of their spirit so resonates that, quite possibly, a thin layer of "joy" may well show up down the road in the geologic record — not unlike the "Iridium" layer that accompanied the famed asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous period.
Take that Preservation Hall Jazz Band bunch that stopped by Kingsbury Hall a couple of weeks back, for instance. Now, there is one love-rich environment! This multi-generational and awe-inspiring ensemble infuses your cultural sensibilities with music that is thoroughly soaked in sassafras and jasmine.
They get you up and out of your seats and doin’ that "second line" New Orleans funeral shtick as you follow them up and down the aisles and up on and around the stage to the hustle and flow of "When the Saints Come Marchin’ In." And they continue the massage until they’ve rubbed the French Quarter right down into your very bones.
And now we have "the first family of New Orleans," the Neville Brothers, returning to Park City for a New Year’s Eve show at the Eccles Center. Aaron, Art, Charles and Cyril will be performing their kind of euphoria-tinged-melancholy for their kind of town and ring in 2006 all in one Crescent City-style rhythm-and-blues bash. Be there or be talked about.
As they’ve proven each and every time they’ve come to town, the brothers Neville are the real deal. Drawing from a potpourri of Big Easy engendered musical styles influenced by European, Latin American and African-American cultures, they are very much of the American roots bag.
The brothers cooked their own distinctive dish of creole, zydeco, reggae, jazz and rock-n-roll over the years and, once you’ve had the taste, there’s no getting around a second helping or two. Coming from one of the most gifted and creative musical families in America, it is no surprise how meaningful their bluesy entres have become to their hometown and beyond.
But, basically, it’s the manner in which eyes touch heart that drives this dance. They look right through any artifice you may have slipped into your inside-left jacket pocket before you embarked upon this particular hallelujah highway pilgrimage. Just one of their glances is like a neutrino passing through lead. As they say, it’s all about the journey.
When you’re dealing with traditional spirits of this standing, communications take place at the bearing, body language, and bent level. The vocabulary is one of nuance. If you’re packin’ baggage, it’ll probably go right over your head. This is the land where a dish of Marie Lavou is served with voodoo and mojo on the side!
It’s all about honoring the music’s traditions and roots with the Neville Brothers. They certainly have put their own stamp on the polyrhythmic genre, but not without acknowledging with reverence what has gone before. They are brothers who thrive at the intersection of unity and diversity. They embody the New Orleans sound.
Aaron recalls growing up in the Calliope housing projects. "Music was everywhere. You might hear a band and follow the sounds, and you’d see a bunch of people following a funeral — that’s where the term ‘second line’ came from. The first line was mourners, and the second line was a brass band playing a slow dirge on the way to the graveyard."
That actually does little to explain his quite singular vocal style, however. It is quite possibly the most gorgeous tenor in popular music — and the falsetto& nothing short of sublime. The voice so inspired Bob Dylan that he wrote "There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness." World of madness? What’s he talkin’ about? Go figure!
So, come the end of next week, we’ll be sittin’ in limbo with fire on the bayou. This, while our hearts genuflect for all that was, and might someday again be, New Orleans. Obviously, the spirit of New Orleans could never die. There are laws against creating or destroying energy and the Big Easy would certainly fall under that standard. The Mardi Gras Mambo will set us free.
We recognize the dynamics involved with the Neville’s and their brothers- and sisters-in-arms as they do that rhythm-and-blues-thing-they-do around the globe in memory of what was lost and what will never be. The New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund and the American Red Cross can always use our help.
We will be there to party with the brothers, of course, but restoration, rehabilitation and perpetuation will also be on our minds. The New Orleans music culture is, and always will be, a national and international treasure.
It was a true delight to celebrate that love and that music with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and, now, we have the opportunity to join with the Neville Brothers and continue in a celebration that will certainly resonate with the unwavering spirit of that wondrous city. The components needed to levitate the Eccles Center on New Year’s Eve might indeed be falling into place.
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