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Angels from New Orleans

Just don't call it musical gumbo

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If you were to draw a family tree of American music, many of the roots would rise from the swampy waters of New Orleans. Its geographical positioning at the mouth of the big river puts the city at a crossroads between the American heartland to the north, the Caribbean to the south, and the railroads connecting east and west. It’s a cultural crossroads, too, as the native Indians, the French, and African slaves mixed in all of their joys, hardships and ways of coping—including their music.

Not only the roots, but a major portion of the trunk of American music is firmly planted in New Orleans as well, where many incarnations of jazz, blues, gospel, rock, country, R&B and funk have been played, fused, invented and reinvented by some of the finest musicians ever. Every street corner was a music school. So was the Neville family, where everyone sang and played instruments. So grows the fruit of the music tree.

It’s a fruit with complex flavors. If you listen closely to the Neville Brothers, you can identify some familiar tastes, like reggae guitar, Cuban conga patterns and ragtime keyboards, but the flavors are molded by improvisational instinct and familiarity with one another and the music they have lived with all of their lives. You can feel it in their albums.

But these guys live to perform. That’s where you can really feel it, in all of its polyrhythmic, four-part harmonious passion. At my last Neville Brothers show, somebody snuck in a bottle of Mezcal and I ate the worm. After the show, I ran into Aaron backstage—he of the incongruously hulking physique and the silky falsetto voice. We shook hands, said hi…but beyond that, I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe it was the worm, but highly unlikely. My silence was despite the worm, out of reverence for the perfect moment he and his brothers had already provided. So I left it there. “Hi. Thanks.” And Aaron Neville was OK with that.

Then, last week, I spoke on the phone with Charles Neville, the Brothers’ sax player, whose notes swirl around like the brown water of the Mississippi, carving new bayous in my brain. Charles was in New Orleans, preparing to join his brothers in the studio, where they are working on some new stuff. I asked him how it’s going in there.

“We’re writing songs,” says Charles, “getting it together on tape. It’s got a more modern feel—still funk, with vocal harmonies, and great rhythms and all that, but evolving. It’s about family, seeing the world as an extended family, looking out for each other like family.”

This made me think of their album Yellow Moon, a soulful attempt to heal deep wounds. Tell me about Yellow Moon, I asked.

“Yellow Moon,” Neville echoed. “That was a real expression of spirit, of our spiritual and emotional selves, but in a musical way.”

I’ll say. The album’s opener, “That’s my Blood Down There,” is sung from the perspective of an angel talking to God, pleading for his scattered remains. Another song, “With God on Our Side,” was written by Bob Dylan—a great songwriter, but without the angelic voice—and sung by Aaron, who just might have the most angelic voice ever. “Healing Chant” won Charles a Grammy, saying with notes what the heart doesn’t have words for.

I tried to tell all of this to Charles, but I was talking hopelessly fast, and he was completely in New Orleans, and he kept saying, “Excuse me?” Finally I just said:

I see that Yellow Moon, like many of your other albums, is dedicated to George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry, your uncle. Can you tell me about his importance to the Neville Brothers?

“Big Chief Jolly was the chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians tribe [note: There is a long tradition in New Orleans of black societies dressing up in feathers, like Indians, and parading around town playing music]. He wanted us to record some of their traditional songs. ‘Til then, although we knew the music, we had never played the traditional songs in the traditional way. So when Jolly called us together, that allowed us to get in touch with the importance of those ‘second line’ traditions. As a result of how we felt after that recording together, we decided, ‘Yeah, let’s get together and do the Neville Brothers.’”

You just used the term “second line.” What does that mean?

“The name ‘second line’ came from the music that people would play on their way back from a funeral. Marching to the funeral, the music was sad and mournful. On the way back, they would pick up the groove, to pick up the spirits. In a funeral procession, the first line of people are the mourners. Then the band. And then behind the band there was a second line of people who were just there for the music. They called that ‘second lining.’”

So people would go to funerals for the music?

“Right. Or they would hear the music on the street and come outside.”

Speaking of marching bands, the Dirty Dozen are on Friday’s bill. You’ve played with them quite a bit. What do you have to say about them?

“I really credit The Dirty Dozen with breathing new life into the whole brass band scene in New Orleans. They started doing it differently, adding new stuff, and modernizing it on stage. They got young people interested in it again. Now there are lots of young brass bands here.”

Listening to the Meters [Art’s second group, started in the early ‘60s], I’m amazed to hear, years before the fact, so many things that I thought George Clinton and crew came up with.

“Yeah, we know those guys, Bootsy and them, from the ‘70s. We played a few gigs with Funkadelic back in the early ’80s. The Meters influenced a lot of the music of the ‘70s. Not only funk and hip-hop, but jazz as well. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, what had been be-bop went into fusion and modal jazz. And by the late ‘70s, what they could do tonally with modal music was kind of done. Herbie Hancock was telling me that they started incorporating the Meters’ rhythms and rhythmic approach into the same modal stuff, making it different altogether, and also different from just the fusion with the hard backbeat stuff.”

What do you call it when Aaron’s voice kind of flutters like a clarinet? Is there a word for that?

“He says it comes from his yodeling days. [Laughs]. It’s a kind of yodel.”

Do you have any questions about Missoula?

“Hmm, let’s see. Is there a macrobiotic restaurant?”

Not exactly. But there is a store that probably has what you are looking for. They have a nice deli section…

“So I could get some organic brown rice cooked?”

Oh yeah. Big time.

“Good. That’s mainly what I’m looking for.”

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