"I always wanted to go hang with my uncle Cyril," says Ivan Neville by phone from Los Angeles. "I used to skip school and go to Cyril's house. He turned me on to a lot of music then. He hipped me to Hendrix and Bob Marley. We have similar musical tastes; with him being the youngest of the Nevilles, he likes a lot of '60s and '70s music that I do."
It's hard to believe that more than 20 years have passed since those secret musical meetings between uncle and nephew. Ivan Neville blossomed into the next generation prodigy, the funky keyboardist who left New Orleans in the early '80s for the bright lights of L.A. and New York. He made some heavyweight musical friends and released a pair of strong albums, but his promising career has occasionally stumbled as a result of some personal struggles.
"I had gone through some rough periods over the years, doing drugs," says Neville, "and I could never really keep it together. I had some shots and chances, played with the [Rolling] Stones and Keith [Richards] and Bonnie [Raitt], but fell through the cracks, and I got lost in that world. Now I've put it all behind me and started feeling good, and I'm getting the music thing together again."
Neville has been clean for three years, and regular trips back to New Orleans have been part of his recovery process. He's sat in with the Meters, Galactic and Papa Grows Funk, and has been recording an album with his father, Jason Neville and Aaron Jr. Now Neville is ready to add another chapter to the Neville legacy, by joining Cyril and bassist George Porter Jr. (and guitarist Tony Hall and drummer George Receli) in a special live show that will draw on the repertoires of each performer and their various bands. (A portion of the proceeds from the show go to the New York Fireman Family Fund.)
"I've always admired Cyril, since back when he was singing with the Meters," says Ivan. "We've been talking about doing different types of gigs over the years, and did a show in Texas a while back with his band and my band that went great. I can't tell you how much it means to me to be able to do this gig with Cyril and George."
This New Orleans gig -- his first in years -- is part of a larger shift for Neville back to the spotlight. After stepping down from sideman gigs with the Spin Doctors and Sonia Dada, he's now concentrating on assembling his own band, and has been performing at a regular weekly gig in Los Angeles with Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler. "We do this fun, loose kind of jam on Sunday night, that's probably the coolest thing in L.A.," says Neville. "It's kind of what New Orleans used to be like, with the late-night jams at Benny's and Tip's."
Neville is also shopping for a record label to release a new CD that he recorded through a production deal with Bruce Willis' Uptop Entertainment company. The album is undeniably Neville's best work yet, a gritty record that builds on his New Orleans funk roots and nods to Sly Stone, but packs a contemporary feel with samples and loops. Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and Bobby Womack all guested on the sessions, and Neville played most of the instruments, packing tracks like "What You Want From Me" with a back-alley garbage can sound on the drums and a lot of reverb from his new favorite instrument, the Hammond B-3 organ.
"After going through synthesizers and keyboards and piano, I went back to the B-3," says Neville. "I didn't realize the greatness of the instrument until later on. And I'm still looking for a clavinet with a decent wah-wah pedal."
Neville's past trials did yield one good thing: a batch of affecting new songs. "Ode to 5 AM" is a chilling chronicle of his darkest hours, and "A Lil' Humility" and "Before it's Gone" reflect a wiser, more thankful outlook on life. "I had been off and on, and had been to many rehabs," says Neville. "My dad would tell me, 'You've got to make your own decision, and decide to ask for help.' But this last one, it was time, and I knew I only had one more chance. It feels great to gain some self-respect, and the respect of others."
- Ivan Neville returns to New Orleans for a funk reunion with his uncle Cyril and George Porter Jr.