Art Neville,
An Appreciation

When keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader Art Neville passed away on Monday, July 22 at the age of 81, another connection to the glory days of the 1950s R&B scene in New Orleans, as well as to the seminal gestation period of New Orleans funk, joined the greats in the musical hall of fame that is our collective memories.

I never had a chance to see the Meters in their original incarnation, but the band he led beginning with the definitive instrumental “Cissy Strut” in 1968 is arguably his most influential contribution to American music. However, I did see nearly every performance after the band got together again in the early years of the 21st century.

I also saw Neville in various configurations with one or more of the original members and as a guest performer with many of the musicians that are his musical progeny. But it his early performances with the Neville Brothers band, still in their adolescence as a group and long before their march to international fame that are seared into my brain.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Up Front and Center: New Orleans Music at the End of the 20th Century, which sums up the experience of seeing the Neville Brothers in the sweaty confines of the un air-conditioned first incarnation of Tipitina’s with a special shout out to my editor Alice Horowitz for insisting that I try to put those ineffable experiences into words.

“The music of the Neville Brothers was fresh and novel to many of their listeners. Though they were clearly not the Meters—the vocal harmonies were far beyond what that band was capable of—and despite the presence of Charles Neville and his saxophone, they were not a jazz band either. They played funk derived from the seminal sounds of the Meters, but they also rocked. Screaming electric guitar, not the syncopated rhythm work of Leo Nocentelli in the early Meters, was part of their instrumentation from day one.

Their music has a flow, a natural rhythm that winds its way almost insidiously through the body. It is visceral but not in the rock ‘n’ roll sense. Quality rock n’ roll tends to throw body punches at the listener and pummels the crowd into submission and/or ecstasy. But funk acts like your friend, even as it hits you over the head with rhythm and groove and knocks you around with the beat.

Up front and center at a Neville Brothers’ performance, particularly at Tipitina’s during Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras, was like having an out-of-body experience. Your senses were pulled in so many directions that the easiest solution to this stimuli conundrum was to simply close your eyes and listen to these masters play. Your hips moved to those funky bass lines like your brain had abandoned your cranium for points south.

Art’s percolating organ and Charles’ sax gently massaged “Mean” Willie Green’s staccato beat. A crisp, piercing guitar solo rang out. Then those magnificent voices, intimately connected by blood, overwhelmed you with astonishing vocal harmonies. The pacing of the shows was masterful. Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more of the relentless funk, the band brought down the sound to a feathery whisper. Aaron’s ethereal voice filled the room, and you literally heard women swoon and gasp. Then the funk hit you again until Art set up a reggae groove and sang, “Sittin’ Here in Limbo” as a colorblind love vibe permeated the smoky confines of the club. Though I don’t ever recall the whole crowd holding hands and swaying together with peace signs in cartoon balloons over our heads, it sure felt that way.”

The same could be said for their long run closing out the main stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Usually twenty minutes or so after the other stages had shut down, the Neville Brothers would end their set with Aaron singing a crowd-hushing version of “Amazing Grace” before the whole band would lilt into Bob Marley’s “One Love” and just like that the crowd became one; basking in the unity of the festival experience.

Art Neville had a long career that began when he was still a teenager singing the then novelty song, “Mardi Gras Mambo.” That song, like many of his singles during the fertile period of his youth, defines a certain sound seared into the minds of a generation that has mostly left us.

But thanks to the staying power of his indescribable genius, music fans still have plenty of other songs that have come to define New Orleans funk and are inscribed on funk music and funk musicians worldwide. You probably know most of the words.

The last time I saw Art Neville on stage without the family band was at a special tribute staged at Tipitina’s on November 15, 2014. Fittingly Tips is where the Nevilles first broke out and is the club he could walk to from his longtime home on Valence Street in the 13th ward of uptown New Orleans. A group of younger musicians, plus a few he had played with over the years including Brian Stoltz, the guitarist in the Funky Meters, learned many of his early songs and the producer/ drummer Aron Lambert, dubbed the event, “Cha Dooky Doo- A Tribute the Art Neville.”

Though while rehearsing the musicians weren’t sure he would, Art spent the whole night on stage joining in on vocals when he could even though his voice was frail. The band was laser focused on Neville.

The music was filled with the energy of so much history and the band members’ obvious love for Art. They were totally focused on him; it was very touching and every time he would take the lead, the entire band turned to face him as he played the music that defined his life and the lives of so many others.

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