How do you explain the post-Katrina hostility toward the Neville Brothers? When Quint Davis announced that they would return to Jazz Fest this year to once again close the festival as they have each year since 1990, some readers at Nola.com remained unimpressed, holding it against them that didn’t return. “[Cyril] has spoiled the barrel of goodness and doesn’t deserve a resounding New Orleans shout out at the Jazz Fest. Shame on him,” one wrote. They’re not the only high profile musicians to leave town and not come home, though. After Hurricane Katrina, Allen Toussaint moved to New York City, which has been Dr. John’s home for years. And there hasn’t always been a residency requirement; Charles hasn’t lived in New Orleans for quite a while.
Admittedly, neither Dr. John nor Toussaint declared the city done and its music business a fraud, but what New Orleanian didn’t think the former at some point in the aftermath, and what musician hasn’t echoed Cyril’s sentiments at one point or another? As another Nola.com reader wrote, “Let those who have never, ever griped about the condition of this city post-hurricane, and the slow progression back to a state of normalcy that only N.O. can understand, post the first negative comments.” It seemed awfully fragile of Aaron not to be able to face the New Orleans air in the year after the storm, but we now have weird coughs and unexplained headaches, so who’s to say he’s wrong? We might be used to the funky air, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funky.
Ask an outside observer which makes more sense: Staying away from a hurricane-ravaged city until it’s declared safe to live in, or hustling back to live in an underserviced ghost town as many of us did? Somebody had to be the first in, but those who stayed away probably showed better judgment. Besides, all of us have watched friends who hurried back to plant the flag decide it was too hard to live here, break down and leave.
Admittedly, we wanted all the company we could get, and every high profile sign of support for the city felt important and meaningful. Aaron and Cyril’s public decisions to live elsewhere felt like a rejection, no question, but primarily because we expect something different from them than we expect from most of our musicians. We want them to do what we would do because we are the Neville Brothers.
Here’s an experiment. Read The Brothers: An Autobiography, the Neville Brothers’ book from 2000, but instead of thinking of Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril as Nevilles, imagine their last names are Williams or Smith or Johnson. Think of them of members of any family in New Orleans, not a famous musical one. It’s easy in a sense because the book stops in the early 1980s, just before they moved from local favorites to international acclaim.
Think of the book as the story of the Williams brothers and nothing changes; the Nevilles’ story could be the story of any family of African-American brothers in New Orleans. The issues they faced growing up were the issues every family faced. Drugs, poverty, racism, faith, hope and love touched so many families, and the stories of how they dealt with them changed in detail but not in substance.
Their Everyfamily quality affects how we think of them. We feel like we know them, which is different from our relationship to the hipper-than-everybody Dr. John, the impossibly elegant Allen Toussaint or the on-a-different-plane Wynton Marsalis. Only Irma Thomas has a similar one-of-us quality. The truth is, we don’t know them at all. The Nevilles, Marsalises and Thomases in our minds are our constructions based on what we’ve seen, heard, read, gossipped and strung together with the bailing wire of our minds, but it’s those constructions we react to, real or not.
It’s not our imaginations that connect them to the city’s culture. They’re tied in to so much of it—Bourbon Street, the Dew Drop Inn, Carnival, Mardi Gras Indians—and they helped popularize the products of those culture. The Meters’ funk was hard, but those grooves hooked to Aaron’s love of pop music, particularly doo wop and classic soul, added a layer of melody that opened up New Orleans music to black and white audiences. 1981’s Fiyo on the Bayou includes “Hey Pocky Way” and “Brother John” next to “Mona Lisa” and “The Ten Commandments of Love.” That album presented them as a harmony group with roots in parade rhythms and the city’s soul tradition, but it also literally demonstrated the connection between our music and the music of the rest of the country.
For much of the 1980s, the Neville Brothers were our band. They weren’t an international thing yet; they were ours, and one weekend a month, they played Tipitina’s. If you weren’t in line by 9 p.m., you weren’t getting in. They were an amazing band loved by anyone who saw it, but the magic was hard to capture. The CDs didn’t quite get what was special about the Nevilles, either because of its ephemeral nature, or because producers and record labels couldn’t see the band for their own preconceived notions. In that way, too, the Nevilles are emblematic of New Orleans, where even now, with the city under increased media attention, reporters can’t get it right. Even when the facts are straight, the tone remains wrong.
When they recorded Yellow Moon in 1989 and finally had their commercial breakthrough, their success was our success. It was validating. Our collective belief in their art and city’s values had finally paid off. The album did everything the Neville Brothers did well, but Lanois’ production subtly emphasized that we’re not some weird Third World city or an anachronism; the evident technology and better-than-you-expected rap on “Sister Rosa” comfortably situated the Nevilles and New Orleans music in the modern world. When they recorded Brother’s Keeper in 1990, they showed that the accomplishment was reproducible, and the album wasn’t a fluke. It also reassured us that New Orleans’ magic could be transmitted by Lanois, Malcolm Burn, and those who were open to its wonders.
Focus is not our long suit, though. We’re a distractable city with a lot of conflicting impulses. We love a good time, but even New Orleanians who aren’t Catholic give up something for Lent. In the Neville Brothers’ case, Aaron followed the success of Yellow Moon and Brother’s Keeper with Warm Your Heart, building on “Don’t Know Much,” his 1989 hit duet with Linda Ronstadt. It was tough to begrudge him success, but it didn’t feel like our success. His AOR pop was lovely and unquestionably soulful, but he was the only thing New Orleans about it. If the musicians were from here, they played in disguise as L.A. session aces.
After that, it seemed like the nature of Neville shows changed. Rather than present 40 years of pop, soul, funk, folk, jazz and New Orleans R&B blended into one seamless sound and show, the concerts stopped for segments that featured the mellow sounds of Aaron Neville.
That album launched what became an indifferent decade for the Neville Brothers. They followed success with a series of albums that lacked purpose, as if they weren’t certain what to do with acclaim. Then again, who in New Orleans has any practice dealing with success? We’re the home of the Saints, one of the seven teams that have never been to the Super Bowl. We’ve had to drive the hour to Baton Rouge to know football dominance.
The hard part was that the Nevilles didn’t seem that interested in the Neville Brothers. Aaron cut more solo albums. Art started gigging with George Porter, Jr. and the Funky Meters, and Cyril played more with the Uptown Allstars. From a fan’s perspective, it didn’t help that the monthly weekend stands at Tipitina’s were a thing of the past. When they played New Orleans, it was one night at the House of Blues.
There are numerous possible reasons for the drift. After a decade or more of trying to express themselves in a group, it seems natural that the members would want to assert themselves. Add to that their ages—ranging from their 40s to their 60s during the 1990s—and few of us grow more flexible or laissez faire with age. On top of that, consider that the band members are brothers and have lifetimes of subtle tensions and differences that they’ve had to live with, and the decade makes sense, even if it didn’t produce the results we would have liked.
The one place where time seemed to be erased was at Jazz Fest. Like so many Jazz Fest sets—for all New Orleans bands that play the festival regularly, but particularly for the Neville Brothers—the shows were meetings of the tribe, gatherings of fans, many of whom have been following them for 15, 20 or more years. Musically, the sets didn’t quite dial back the clock to the 1980s, but they were close enough for us and the band to reunite.
Those shows weren’t exercises in nostalgia where we listened with kind ears to the band onstage and heard the Nevilles we remembered. They were acts of faith, of belief in the Neville Brothers, New Orleans music and New Orleans itself, belief that there’s something powerful, unique and beautiful expressed in the band’s music, something that’s an extension of the city itself.
Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life suggested that faith in the Neville Brothers was well-placed. The 2004 album is a powerful musical statement of relevance, speaking from one generation of struggling New Orleanians to another. The things that puzzle us puzzle them, the things we fear, they fear, and the peace we want, they want. In “Brothers,” they assert the basic truth that we all learned after the storm. The recovery to date isn’t the product of any governmental intervention; it’s the result of us helping each other. They each step up to the mic and sing individually and as a group, and assert simply, “We were / we are / we’re still brothers.” If you’re at all open to the Church of New Orleans, the religious passion so many feel for the city and its culture, the simple beauty of that thought channeled through their voices has to speak to you still.