Tropical Storm Barry had passed through earlier in the day. Dark clouds still hung in the sky. The Neville Brothers took the stage Saturday at Vinoy Park, and people were trickling in with chairs and ponchos, unsure whether they were going to get doused by another downpour. Luckily, the rains never came (other than a drizzle or two), allowing for thousands to enjoy a memorable presentation of the dynamic brand of R&B distinct to the Nevilles' native New Orleans, the city the four siblings have proudly represented for decades.
From the start, the Nevilles played with a sense of purpose, ultimately delivering a performance that was by turns jubilant, touching, socially conscious and spiritual. It was the kind of show that not only takes the listener away from the daily grind for a couple of hours, but leaves one feeling a little better about life on the way out.
The Neville Brothers took the stage around 6:30 p.m. and went straight into the funk classic "Fire on the Bayou." Originally recorded by The Meters (which included keyboardist Art Neville and percussionist Cyril Neville) in the mid-'70s, the song immediately had people stomping their feet to the steamy, syncopated grooves. Charles Neville unleashed a sax solo, and the sun peeked through the clouds — it was a good sign of things to come.
The band continued with completely reworked renditions of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" and Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle." Then it was time for Aaron Neville to mesmerize the audience with that angelic voice of his, which has made him an international solo star. With eyes closed tight, the hulking singer dug into Marvin Gaye's protest classic "What's Going On" and then Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Era. Aaron performed each one with all the fervor and reverence of a gospel singer. It was powerful to witness.
During "Change," Aaron placed a clenched fist over his heart while Charles played an emotive sax solo; he then exchanged smiles with brothers Art and Cyril while the guitarist issued a pain-soaked solo. Grown men in the audience wiped their eyes.
Moments later, we were all dancing again.
"If you haven't been to New Orleans we're about to bring you," Cyril shouted. "Get ready to get your second line on!" Party time. A medley of Big Easy party songs including the Professor Longhair favorite "Tipitina" and then some jaw-dropping jazz workouts. Art's rich organ work gave way to dueling drum solos. Charles issued rapid, round notes that made his saxophone sound like a trumpet.
Cyril addressed the crowd again to dedicate a song to "strong women everywhere." It was The Nevilles' successful foray into rap, "Sister Rosa," from their 1989 album Yellow Moon. Cyril chanted his tribute to Ms. Parks with Aaron and Art singing with him on the chorus. The message was uplifting rather than heavy and went down easy thanks to some rousing drum work.
"Sister Rosa" was smartly followed by "Tell It Like It is," a plaintive love song that Aaron scored a No. 1 hit with in 1967. He sang the song like he had written it the night before, like the woman who inspired the song was still on his mind. Aaron is 66 but sounds like he did in his 20s and looks no older than 50.
Having already tugged at our heartstrings, inspired some serious hip-shaking and reminded audience members of the sacrifices made in the name of equality, the Neville Brothers closed the show with a hymn. Most folks have heard "Amazing Grace" performed countless times. But witnessing it performed by Aaron Neville is something special, the kind of experience one rarely enjoys at a rock concert.
Ziggy Marley performed at 8:40 p.m. to a much larger crowd than the one for The Nevilles. The reggae royal had no problem delighting the crowd of mostly college students and hippies with a set of originals and a couple Bob Marley classics. At the end of the night, though, it was still that Neville Brothers performance that I couldn't get out of my head.