Alive at Five is a big open-air house full of music, and it can welcome thousands. Tonight the Neville Brothers — house band to the world — will hold those thousands right in the palm of their hands.
For saxophonist Charles Neville — who wrote the long-running musical “Shangri-La” about playing in the house band at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans and other rocking roadhouses — it’s a homecoming gig of sorts. He lives in Huntington, Mass., near Northampton, the only brother not living in the South.
Singer/percussionist Cyril and singer Aaron both lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina: Aaron lives in Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and Cyril lives in Austin. Keyboardist Art still lives on Valence Street in New Orleans, where the brothers grew up and started making music.
“Art [born in 1937] and I [born in 1938] started playing around the same time,” Charles recalled Monday from a tour bus heading for Portsmouth, N.H. “But I started going out on the road with bands first, and I had a band [called the Turquoise] first before anyone else.”
Neville Brothers review
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Charles was 14 when he played his first gig, for $5 at the New Orleans YWCA, and left school a year later to tour with Gene Franklin & His Houserockers, finding both a home and a musical education on the road.
“The most useful bit of advice that I got was from a saxophone player [Sonny Stitt] who told me if I wanted to learn to play bebop, I had to learn the horn; and in order to learn the horn, that meant I had to learn all the scales,” said Charles. “I had told him, ‘Man, I don’t want to play scales, I want to play bebop.’ And he said there was nothing on the horn but scales: All the music comes from scales. That was the real eye-opener, and that’s what got me to really working on getting to know what I was doing.”
Charles soon learned that he could put down roots easily, unlike most New Orleanians transplanted elsewhere. “Because I went on the road and got to see different places, I could feel at home anywhere,” he said. He lived in Memphis (where he’d been stationed in the Navy and met B.B. King), New York City, Vermont, Oregon and now Massachusetts.
“My wife is from there and when we got married, her parents gave us some land as a wedding gift,” said Charles gratefully. “We had a really nice big house in New Orleans,” he said. “But we would hear gunshots at night, and crazy stuff was happening, so we decided, let’s get out of the city and move up to the country.”
Charles always seems to gravitate back to New Orleans, though. His return home in the late 1970s after a decade of playing jazz in New York City reunited the four brothers (who had played together for years, in many combinations) as the Neville Brothers band. They were family, but different: Charles steeped in bebop and blues, Art revved by the deep funk he played with the Meters, Aaron devoted to gospel but also at home in pop and country, and Cyril inspired by soul and reggae.
Together, they invented a super-charged, soulful sound, spiced with all those flavors but transcending tradition. Opening shows for Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead grew their fan-base from the hometown clubs they played at the beginning. But they also struggled with addictions and health problems, marital and family challenges, and the music business. (David Ritz’s 2000 book “The Brothers Neville: Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril” recalls those struggles with remarkable candor.)
The problem “is not so much the record companies as — once the record is done — getting it played [on radio],” said Charles. “We don’t fit any of the radio formats. In the ’70s, it was easy to get played because then radio stations were interested in original sounds. But now they only want stuff that sounds like what they’ve already got.”
The Neville Brothers record regularly, and “Livin’ in the Shadow of Life” (2004) may be their most modern, incorporating some hip-hop elements; but it’s also their most soulful in years, recorded after Art had recovered from back surgery.
On the road
Still, they make their living on the road. “Our main source of income is our touring as the Neville Brothers,” said Charles. Their first-since-Katrina return to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008 marked an emotional high, reclaiming their time-honored spot closing the festival. “It’s always special there,” said Charles, “because there’s not only a lot of the local people who know what’s there, but a lot of people who come from all over the world.” He added, “A lot of people who had left because of the storm [Katrina] were back for that also.”
In addition to the Neville Brothers, “We each have our own separate bands as well,” Charles said. “When we’re not working with the Neville Brothers, we do other stuff.”
Lots of other stuff: Aaron makes pop records and tours with a jazz band that often features Charles; they’ll play some dates this summer between Neville Brothers’ swings. Art plays with a reunited version of the Meters (New Orleans’ answer to Booker T and the MGs) called funkyMeters. Cyril led the reggae-funk Uptown All-Stars (which played a Second Wind Washington Park show years ago). He recently released “Brand New Blues” and is playing solo shows this summer.
Charles plays with many artists as a valued guest with literally dozens of album credits; often in Kip Hanrahan’s all-star crews. Their latest is “Rumba Profundo (Deep Rumba): A Calm in the Fire of the Dance.” Charles also leads a New Orleans band of classical and jazz players that he rightly calls Diversity: Their latest is “Safe in the Buddha’s Palm,” combining his interests in Buddhism and bebop.
Charles may be proudest of “Shangri-La.” A sort of funk and bebop cousin of William Saroyan’s 1939 dive-bar play “The Time of Your Life,” “Shangri-La ran for years in New Orleans, starting with a year-long engagement at the Contemporary Arts Center Theater
“It was based on my experiences playing in house bands in different clubs around the South,” said Charles, noting some common themes among the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans; Wes Anderson’s Brew Room in Tampa, Fla.; Mitchell’s Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.; and the Big Rose in Mobile, Ala.
“There was in most places a female impersonator who was the MC and in some cases manager, and also one of the performers,” he said.
Not so exotic
Compared to those joints, and to the tent shows Charles played in his early days on the road, Alive at Five may seem downright conventional to the Neville Brothers tonight. In addition to the four brothers, the lineup includes drummer “Mean” Willie Green, bassist Chris Severin, guitarist Makuni Fukuda and keyboardist Michael Goods — unlike their last Alive at Five show when Aaron’s keyboardist son Ivan and Art’s guitarist son Ian played with them. Charles’ daughter Charmaine has also played with the Neville Brothers. Ivan and Ian played with Dumpstaphunk last winter at Revolution Hall.
For Charles, this summer’s tour marks 46 years on the road, endlessly learning by playing with his brothers.
“I feel like the music is coming through me,” he said. “I’m not making it; the music is playing me.”
Alive at Five kicks off tonight at Albany’s Riverfront Amphitheater when Mingo Fishtrap opens at 5 p.m. The rain site is the Corning Preserve Boat Launch — under I-787 and upstream from the amphitheater.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]