When the Big Easy Entertainer of the Year Award honorees the Neville Brothers took the stage at the 18th annual awards ceremonies at the Municipal Auditorium last week, a gentle noodling that sounded like tuning up became the sweet, relaxed groove of 'Brothers.' The song is the centerpiece of the 2004 album, Walkin' in the Shadow of Life (Back Porch), reducing the band's relationship and message to the elemental: 'We were, we are, we're still / brothers.' The bass drum mimics a heartbeat as Aaron, Cyril, Art and Aaron's son Ivan enact the togetherness of the lyric and sing alternating lines. When Aaron stretches out his arms, hands balled, brother Charles reaches out instinctively and bumps fists with him.
In Aaron's acceptance speech, he pointed out that the Nevilles have been a part of New Orleans music for 50 years, considering that 'Mardi Gras Mambo' by Art Neville and the Hawkettes was released in 1954. Whether as solo artists or in other configurations, the Neville Brothers have helped define New Orleans R&B, soul and funk, and last year's critically acclaimed album shows they remain not only relevant, but vital.
Sessions for the album began in late 2003. 'It was time,' Ivan Neville says. 'We needed something fresh to rekindle things.' The Nevilles had bought a studio on Canal Street that they dubbed Neville Neville Land, and Ivan volunteered 'Your Life (Fallen Soldiers)' to record while working out the studio's kinks. Co-written with his father and brothers Aaron Jr. and Jason, the song opens with Charles' halting melody on an echoed flute, recalling '70s jazz-funk while establishing a melancholy tone. In its chorus, the brothers sing, 'Don't you walk outside,' before Aaron, like a guardian angel, finishes the warning 'without looking around.' It's a story of inner-city life the Nevilles have told before, but never this chillingly.
The album recalls socially conscious R&B of the late 1960s and early '70s, and the cover of the Temptations' 'Ball of Confusion' underscores that affinity. Aaron conceived the idea of covering the song, noting how the Temptations traded vocals was a perfect match for the Nevilles. 'Unfortunately, a lot of what they were saying is still pertinent today,' Ivan says.
The album also speaks frankly about drugs in 'Junkie Child.'
'Dad has a book of poetry, so we used some of those for songs,' Ivan says. 'Junkie Child' was one of those songs. Coming early in the sessions, the song set a gritty tone for those that followed, and for the level of family involvement as well. 'I had an idea,' Ivan continues, 'and Cyril's son Omari had come up with a percussion thing, and when they heard it, everybody said, 'That's 'Junkie Child.'''
While Ivan and the brothers co-produced the album with Milton Davis, Cyril and Ivan spent the most time behind the control board. Aaron contributed many lyrics, but a lot of the musical ideas emerged from Cyril. Though other natural and electronic rhythm tracks were cut, rhythmic ideas usually began with Cyril playing a djembe while Ivan played the Fender Rhodes keyboard. He also contributed the anthemic 'Kingdom Come,' co-written during the Brother's Keeper sessions in 1990 with U2's Bono.
The album's title came from Art, who was going through a difficult time after back surgery threatened his musical future. His recovery period brought Ivan into the band in 2002, and Art didn't accompany the band on the recent Australian tour, opting instead to stay home and rest up for Jazz Fest. During a dark moment, he mused on the 23rd Psalm, Ivan recalls, and the shadow of death. That sounded too dark to be a CD title, so the phrase became 'shadow of life.'
During the sessions, Art was there with all the brothers for brainstorming sessions, and came in to inject energy with his B-3 organ. Tracks like 'Poppa Funk' and 'Can't Stop the Funk' started spontaneously, with Art often nailing parts in one take. 'We'd say, 'Art -- go play,' Ivan says, laughing. 'He'd say, 'What key?' and get to wailing.'
Charles also brought positive energy to the sessions; his bebop informed his playing in a way that is 'mysteriously melodic,' Ivan says. 'You want to get Charles and just let him blow. The intro to 'Junkie Child' is some sick shit. I don't know what that was.'
Unfortunately, Charles was in a car accident near his home in Massachusetts while recording was ongoing, so it was impossible for him to come back for the final sessions. 'Kingdom Come' still needed sax parts, and which were incorporated despite Charles' accident; he had enough strong outtakes from other songs in the right key to give the song what it needed, Ivan marvels. 'It sounds like it's right for the song.'
For all their individual contributions, the Neville Brothers are, ultimately, about family. Ivan talks about 'the brothers' -- 'the brothers did this' or 'the brothers said that' -- and says, 'There's something that happens when all the brothers are singing together.' They sang the chorus to 'Brothers' as they often do, together, all standing around one mic, and according to Ivan, 'to see them in there singing together was amazing to me. But at the end,' he adds, 'it was still my dad and uncles.'.
The Neville Brothers close the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Sunday, May 1, at 5:30 p.m.
- David Richmond
- 'There's something that happens when all the brothers are singing together,' Ivan Neville says.