Photo: Jean Hangarter
Neville Brothers performing at the House of Blues, August 28, 2009
Even long-time fans probably didn't expect the generous, inspiring show Dr. John and the Neville Brothers delivered as part of a "Mardi Gras Mambo" tour stop at the House of Blues last Friday. After all, these venerable masters of New Orleans funk, blues, and boogie are getting on — Art, patriarch of the Neville clan, is 71, and brothers Charles, Aaron, and Cyril are 70, 68 (same as Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack), and 60, respectively. Not that any musical performance isn't physically demanding, but there's a difference between high-energy funk and Willie Nelson singing "Georgia on My Mind."
Set opener Dr. John — a keyboard virtuoso with a bluesy, precisely grizzled vocal delivery — was buoyed by his long-time Lower 911 band, with drummer/hype man Herman "Roscoe" Ernest III, bassist David Barard, guitarist John Fohl and, more recently, the great New York jazz baritone sax man Ronnie Cuber. Dr. John and the Nevilles are partial to radical rearranging of NOLA warhorses, so it might have taken a second to realize that the funk-driven opener was a souped-up version of the old Mardi Gras Indian chant "Indian Red," with an interpolation of "Down by the Riverside" coming into the final chorus.
It's also typical of Dr. John and the Nevilles that genre hierarchies get flattened, so a Rebennack set can include "That Old Black Magic" and "Good Night, Irene" as well as his singular hoodoo psychedelics and his one bona fide hit, the 1973 funk chestnut "Right Place, Wrong Time." Also typical in the 90-minute set were Dr. John's laconic, drawling asides. He explained that Leadbelly was serving a double life sentence at Angola State Penitentiary when the governor heard the song and declared, "We don't care if you're doing triple life. We're gonna set your ass loose!" Okay, maybe a bit apocryphal, but an apt intro. And for good measure, Cyril Neville snuck out to play congas on the hoodoo trance groove of "Dream Warrior" and Aaron emerged to sing "Please Send Me Someone To Love."
The Nevilles are an odd hybrid: Art was a founding member of NOLA funk masterminds the Meters, Aaron became an R&B star in 1966 with his ballad hit "Tell It like It Is," Charles leads a second life as a jazz saxophonist, and Cyril, given his druthers, goes for jam-bandish reggae. In this show it all came together, from the opening high-powered "Congo Square," with Charles's descending alto line tagging the riff of the refrain and a popping rhythm section that included Michael Goods on keyboards, Chris Severin on seven-string bass, and a commanding "Mean" Willie Green on drums.
It was a set that ran about 105 minutes and mixed all the oddball, seemingly unblendable Neville elements perfectly — Aaron's ballads (including "Tell It like It Is," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the requisite encore of "Amazing Grace"), Charles's genial jazz pop, and a smidgen of Cyril's reggae (a "One Love" encore). The overriding presence, though, was Art as the funk master, even though he sang only a couple of numbers and moved gingerly, with the help of a cane and a roadie to get behind his keyboards. But, wearing a backward baseball cap, he beamed as the band slammed through Neville originals like "Congo Square" and "Yellow Moon," hoary NOLA standards like "Tipitina," "Carnival Time," and "Iko Iko" (with the crowd gleefully chanting along), Cyril's giddy take on Louis Prima, and Aaron's "Fever." It's a tired old metaphor for New Orleans music: gumbo. But that's what it was. And it tasted just right.