On the afternoon of February 25, just four days after Mardi Gras, the Louisiana Music Factory celebrated its 20th anniversary with a day-long in store concert. Kermit Ruffins, John Boutte, Little Freddie King and the Stooges Brass Band had already played, but now it was time for a member of a New Orleans royal family to hit the stage.
Cyril Neville wasted no time taking command of the audience. He had the room second-lining with abandon for the entirety of his 40-minute set. “I’m from the first family of New Orleans funk,” he announced to cheers. The youngest of the fabled siblings of Valence Street in New Orleans’ 13th Ward has been occluded by the celebrity of his older brothers Art and Aaron Neville for most of his career, but it looks like his time has come. His solo band is the best it’s ever been, he’s been touring as a co-front man with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, and he’s an in-demand collaborator with everyone from Galactic to the Pimps of Joytime. Now he’s about to embark on a high profile tour with the newly formed Royal Southern Brotherhood.
Things have fallen together quickly for a band that unites two of the most important American musical families of the rock era, the Neville Brothers and the Allman Brothers. Cyril and Devon Allman, the son of Allman Brothers’ founding member Gregg Allman, joined forces with bluesman Mike Zito to make a powerful debut album along with drummer Yonrico Scott, another musician with deep ties to the Allmans, and bassist Charlie Wooton, a stalwart on the jam band scene.
This historic family alliance has been a long time coming.
“Devon’s dad and me go way back,” Neville says. “Me and the Midnight Rider have a history. We did a TV special years ago in New Orleans. It took a couple of days to shoot, so we got a chance to hang and talk and trade stories. There’s a great story about how me and him really met. Many years ago I was in Macon, Georgia recording ‘Gossip,’ ‘Tell Me What’s on Your Mind’ and a couple of other things with the Meters and Allen Toussaint. When we finished, we was invited to an event in downtown Macon where they were giving Arthur Conley the key to the city. We’re in Macon, Georgia, and I’m in heaven, right? This is where James Brown lived. People were telling us about this great band that was playing that day. As we get closer, I’m hearing this strong, blues-based music and since we’re in Macon, I’m prepared to see these great black musicians tearing it up. I thought, ‘I’m about to go to school.’ We went to school all right ‘cause when we turned the corner, I’m hearing somebody killin’ the B3, but all I’m seeing is brown hair flying everywhere. It was Gregg with the Allman Brothers. It knocked me in the dirt. I stood there and watched them do ‘Killing Floor.’ It was some of the baddest shit I’d ever heard in my life.”
Now Cyril is in a band with Gregg’s son.
“I don’t try to figure out why that shit happens,” he says. “I just go with the flow, let the spirit lead me here. The one earthly element behind all this is Rueben Williams, who had the idea to put this all together and make one group out of it. The rest of it is celestial.”
Williams, an affable Cajun from Houma, Louisiana, worked as a musician and club owner before forming his Thunderbird Management Group to handle the business affairs of his close friend Tab Benoit. Williams added Monk Boudreaux and Anders Osborne to his roster and put the two of them together to make a pair of important albums for Shanachie Records. Williams is responsible for creating the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, which put together his clients Benoit, Osborne, Boudreaux, Johnny Sansone and Cyril Neville. Mike Zito is also on the Thunderbird roster, and when Devon Allman joined last year, the seeds of what could be Williams’ biggest project were sewn.
Zito and Neville first worked together on the title track to Mike’s acclaimed Pearl River album.
“Before we even met, me and Mike wrote a song together,” says Neville. “He was down here doing a record and Rueben called me and said that he needed another song. It was a blues record, so I sent him these lyrics and told him I had been thinking about ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins when I was writing it.”
The song, “Pearl River,” with its stark message about race relations in the Deep South, was named the Song of the Year at the 2010 Blues Music Awards.
Zito’s idea behind Pearl River was to write about his family history. “My grandfather came from Sicily to New Orleans, and I thought it would be a good idea to do an album about Gulf Coast music and my background there. Most of the songs I wrote were kind of happy, upbeat swamp music songs. I told Cyril what I was working on, and he told me his grandfather took him fishing on the bayou and said to him, ‘You know why the water looks so black? It’s because they used to hang the slaves and then cut the bodies down and throw them in the water.’ I was a little overwhelmed by it at first. I said to Cyril, you sure you want me to be the one to sing this? He said go with it and see how it works out, and it ended up winning the Blues Award in 2010.
“I had never written with anyone else before I started writing with Cyril. I don’t know how to explain how it works. He usually has some lyrics and I’ll put music to it. When Cyril Neville says that’s a good song, it’s tremendous encouragement to keep working on it.”
Zito’s family migrated upriver to St. Louis, where he grew up on the south side close to the Anheuser-Busch brewery where many of his relatives worked. He traces his love of blues to his father’s passion for big band music and the records his older siblings turned him onto, but his own musical epiphany came when he heard his first Van Halen record as an eight-year-old.
“I knew I had to get a guitar,” he says, but he had to go to a local music store to learn how to play it. The workers at the music store gave him tips but made fun of his Van Halen and Kiss albums. “They’d put on Allman Brothers Band Live at Fillmore East,” he recalls. “I know where every note fits on that album. That’s how I learned to play blues, listening to that, B.B. King’s Live at the Regal and Eric Clapton with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.”
Zito played in a Blues Brothers-style R&B cover band and a country group before leading his own band.
“Everything I played was blues-based,” he says. “If I got to do a song in a band I was with, I’d go to Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Hendrix, so I was always bringing blues into the band. But the country style of playing always interested me; I was fascinated especially by the older style of Travis picking [named after guitarist Merle Travis]. A lot of the guys in the music store were into that. After I was in the country band, I started my own group and I applied a lot of that country playing to playing blues.”
Zito took a day job at the St. Louis Guitar Center, where he met another local bandleader, Devon Allman. “He had been in a band called the Dark Horses,” says Zito. “They were pretty popular around town. By the time I met him he was with Honeytribe. We got together and jammed and went to each other’s gigs. We were always friends, but because we both worked at that store and had our own bands, we were competing in a good way—supportive of one another but we were both trying to do something. He was just getting into guitar playing. This was in 2000; he had been a singer more.”
Zito could never understand why Devon didn’t take advantage of his connection to the Allman Brothers.
“The first thing I asked him was, ‘Why are you working here?’ I figured he was Gregg Allman’s son; he must be rich and didn’t have to work. He told me, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it on my own. I’ve got to make a name for myself, not just because of my last name.’ I had a lot of respect for him. I have no idea what it’s like to be in that situation, being the son of somebody famous in music and trying to play music. He wanted to make sure he developed his own sound and style, but I think somewhere along the line he’s come to the conclusion that it’s okay to be who he is. When you look at him, he looks like an Allman Brother. When he sings, it’s just the way it is.”
Though Devon clearly didn’t try to capitalize on his family connections, it wasn’t difficult for him to develop along separate lines from Gregg because his parents divorced when he was an infant, and he didn’t really know his father until much later.
“I didn’t really meet my dad until I was a teenager,” he says. “I wasn’t really around him to soak it all in, and I’m grateful for that because I listened to Wings. I loved Sabbath and the Smiths, all kinds of stuff. I made it a point to not dive into southern rock and make that my thing. I liked so many styles of music, from atmospheric things to world music to metal, old school R&B, Santana. I’ve always loved Santana—he’s in my top five guitarists, and John Frusciante, what he brought to the [Red Hot Chili Peppers] writing-wise and with harmony vocals. I love Curtis Mayfield and Al Green; they’ve influenced me too.”
Allman and Zito were playing such disparate styles that they never considered joining forces back then. “If someone had proposed this idea 10 years ago,” Zito muses, “we probably wouldn’t have done it.” But when Zito casually asked Williams why members of the Neville Brothers and Allman Brothers never joined forces, the wheels began turning. Williams brought the three of them into the studio early last year to see what might happen.
“We went into the studio, Cyril playing drums and Devon and I playing guitars,” says Zito. “It clicked right away. We came up with some of the ideas that ended up on that album in that session. Cyril said, ‘Let me try this drum rhythm I’ve been working on,’ and he played this African-derived pattern. Devon has a Santana influence to his playing, and his melodic line fit the rhythm perfectly. We knew we could jam, but we wanted to make sure the songs were what the album was about.”
That song, “Brotherhood,” was made with bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Mean Willie Green, but they were concentrating on their own group, the New Orleans Suspects, so Scott and Wooton were recruited.
“We met a couple of months later in New Orleans and we literally all walked into this studio and met as we were playing,” Allman says. “I knew in the first hour there was something there. When all the right pieces are in place, there’s no denying it. When you’re 17 and playing in garage bands, you’re just trying to get through the tunes. RSB looked good on paper, but it turned out to be way more than just a good concept. This is an actual band. Timing is everything, and you have to have the right vehicle. RSB is definitely the right vehicle. Cyril is the glue that kind of holds it all together in my eyes.”
According to Neville, “When we went into the studio with this band, we wound up doing 12 tracks in two days and the whole record in five days. It was one of the smoothest sessions I’ve ever been on. Everything and everybody just clicked, from us in the band to producer Jim Gaines, it just came together. When we got the first mix back, it was pretty amazing. A couple of the songs were written on the spot in the studio.”
In one of the songs on the album, “Left My Heart in Memphis,” Allman writes about Jeff Buckley, not a reference anyone will associate with the Allman Brothers.
“When I was making the Space Age Blues album in Memphis, I would run every morning along the river to Mud Island,” Allman says. “Then I would sit on this bench literally 50 yards from where Jeff Buckley passed away. I would put Jeff Buckley’s ‘Last Goodbye’ on the iPod, and I would sit there and meditate to that. His voice is so stellar, unbelievable. I wouldn’t say he was a direct influence, but he was definitely an inspiration. I listen to a lot of singers who aren’t totally in my wheelhouse. I dig that. You might cop a little phrasing or something, but just to hear somebody sing with heart, that does it for me.”
Though the RSB album has the big two-guitar sound that producer Jim Gaines is known for, it’s clear that the project was song-oriented rather than a jam band session.
“Everybody’s on the same page, not just about music but about life, about what’s going on in the world,” Neville says. “That came out in songs like ‘New Horizon’ and a couple of other ones, lyrics that indicate we’re not just up there jamming. We’re also thinking, but not overthinking. One of the things we aimed at going in was every song could stand on its own, but there’s also a thread that weaves them all together. Some of it was really spontaneous out of conversations we had. Old school, man, the way it’s supposed to go. There was very little overdubbing; the song was the performance. That’s the way we did it at Cosimo’s back in the day, everybody in the studio at the same time playing together.”
The big surprise is what RSB sounds like in live performance. Despite the sheen and presence of the Gaines production, in person RSB comes off nothing like a southern rock guitar army. The group is much closer to the kind of alt-country style that emphasizes vocal harmonies and terse, understated guitar parts designed to fit the song structure. Neville, Allman and Zito all sing beautifully, and the two guitars aren’t the loudest feature in the mix. The closest the band comes to shredding is during Charlie Wooton’s five-string bass solo.
Allman and Zito do give the guitar fans a little treat in the encore, trading fours on familiar classic rock themes from Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin by way of introduction to a terrific version of “One Way Out” that’s closer to Sonny Boy Williamson’s Chess recording than the gonzo extrapolation made famous by the Allman Brothers. It’s a tribute to the band’s roots in American music at large rather than just southern rock, and a sign that the RSB could be around for a long time.
Royal Southern Brotherhood play French Quarter Festival on Saturday, April 14 at 2 p.m. on the BMI Songwriter Stage.