"I've been on the road since, let's see . . ." Charles Neville says from an Atlanta tour stop, pondering all those years as a>"/>
"I've been on the road since, let's see . . ." Charles Neville says from an Atlanta tour stop, pondering all those years as a touring musician. "February 1955."
The Neville Brothers
The Pier, Saturday, August 7
Charles first hit the road as a 14 year old, playing saxophone with the blues act Tiny Brown, but despite going on to live as far away as Eugene, Oregon, the music of hometown New Orleans always stayed close.
Charles now lives back in his mother's former house across from brother Art on Valence Street, where the Nevilles first rehearsed together in the living room, soaking up the diverse blend of music from their surroundings. It's the birthplace of their distinctive rock 'n' rhythm. The latest album, Valence Street (Columbia), pays tribute to their origins in the spicy culture and sounds of uptown New Orleans.
Coincidentally, Valence is a scientific term, referring to a combination of power, magnetism, and affinity. The brothers share common influences, but each brings different elements to the group, from Art's R&B to Cyril's soul to Aaron's doo-wop and pop; Charles is responsible for the be-bop and jazz. "We were shaped by the music of the '30s, '40s, and '50s as kids," he says."We played R&B with pioneers like Little Richard and Fats Domino when it began to be called rock 'n' roll. We picked up something from all of it—even disco—and added something too. It's all still in our music."
The Nevilles' legacy stretches back to early solo achievements, including Art's classic carnival anthem "Mardi Gras Mambo" and Aaron's '60s solo hit "Tell It Like It Is." Art assembled the now-legendary Meters, eventually enlisting Charles and Aaron. At their uncle "Big Chief Jolly" Landry's request, Cyril came aboard, and the Nevilles and their uncle released the album Wild Tchoupitouslas in 1977. The siblings then took on their most recognizable form, coalescing into the Neville Brothers.
The group's renowned performances, recorded at the Crescent City nightclub Tipitina's and eventually released as two live albums, changed nightly, but the mix often contained signature songs such as "Fiyo on the Bayou," Aaron's pop hits, and material from the now-classic albums Yellow Moon and Brother's Keeper—all of which helped develop the Neville-ized beat that reigns on the new record.
"That rhythmic intensity is called 'second-line,'" explains Charles. He wrote the instrumental title track from Valence Street in the '70s while playing with Latin bands in Brooklyn, to give them a taste of New Orleans. "Second-line rhythms come from funeral parades, when the up-tempo music is played on the way back from the cemetery." In other words, the second line of people are drawn to dance; the first line is the mourners.
"Music is a part of New Orleans from birth to death," he says. "One of the main things is the infusion of the spirit of the musicians. It's not head music, but heart and soul—to do it for love rather than hit records."
Still, a hit record would be nice. The new album contains a number of potential singles, such as Charles' sweet, sad ballad "Until We Meet Again"; Art's spooky and voodoo-esque "The Dealer"; Cyril's sensually seductive "Utterly Beloved"; and Aaron's prayerlike "Give Me A Reason," which features the Brothers' trademark gospel-inflected four-part harmonies.
The Nevilles' best chance for airplay this time around, oddly enough, may lie with a Fugee. Wyclef Jean hooked up with the Brothers through their record label, and the Fugees' frontman collaborated on Valence Street's hip-hop tinged "Mona Lisa." Still, Charles isn't entirely confident that this group, so rich with history, can convince the programming gods of its relevance today.
"Stations won't give people a chance to make the [songs] hits," he says, bemoaning the narrowing of radio playlists. "What gets played becomes popular because that's often all people hear."