A couple of years ago, it came soul-searching time for the Neville Brothers. The foursome — Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril — along with Aaron's son Ivan, realized they'd been resting on their laurels as the First Family of New Orleans Funk for too long."For about five years, it'd been getting a little stale," admits Ivan, speaking by cell phone as the band mills around the New Orleans airport, about to leave on tour. "The same venues, the same places, the same music. We could feel that the audiences needed something new. It was, 'OK, brah, it's time to reinvigorate ourselves, energize ourselves.'"
The Nevilles had become an institution, international ambassadors for Crescent City R&B, an intoxicating hodgepodge that stirred together the loping, syncopated rhythms of America's most African-rooted city with the expansiveness of jazz, the rich vocal textures of doo-wop and soul, and the gutbucket intensity of the blues.
While the burgeoning jam-band scene swirled around them, attracting throngs of patchouli-doused kids clad in hemp and topped in dreadlocks, the Neville Brothers drew, in Ivan's words, "A more conservative audience. More adult, more safe, not as funky of an audience." It wasn't like the old days, when "you'd come to see the Neville Brothers and dance all night, or stand on the dance floor packed with everyone else."
But how to go about this reinvigoration? The group tackled it on a couple of fronts. First order of business: re-emphasize the band. Aaron Neville, a burly man with an angelic voice, had over the years carved out a niche as a solo act. The group adopted a crowd-pleasing tendency to feature him. In time, the other members seized their own moments of onstage limelight — and, as such, the collective identity of the Neville Brothers had been diluted.
"The focus wasn't on the band as much," Ivan says. "It was more on individual things. My dad was the main man [in changing that]. He wanted the Nevilles to do something great again."
Aaron had long been in the best position to split for a solo career. But even in the late '80s and early '90s, when he scored major pop hits like "Everybody Plays the Fool" and his duets with Linda Ronstadt, Aaron had always remained true to his band of brothers.
The Nevilles reckoned that the best way to cement this renewed commitment to the ensemble was to document it on wax. Sans record label, the siblings had to come out of pocket to record their first album since 1999, which they later licensed to Back Porch/EMI. The resulting Walkin' in the Shadow of Life, due Oct. 19, features 11 songs written by various combinations of members, augmented by a couple of covers. Produced by Milton Davis (John Mellencamp, Dionne Farris), the disc finds the group diving into big-beat funk — funk that, at times, approaches George Clinton-esque proportions.
The effect is a bit disconcerting; whereas most prior Nevilles albums showcased slippery, supple funk that was more apt to suggest a backbeat, these grooves get pounded out like a jackhammer with a pronounced drum-machine sound. Ivan says that, while employing computer rhythms, all of the tracks feature real drums (although long-time stickman Willie Green did not play on the sessions). "We built grooves around Cyril's percussion, for the most part," he explains.
Fortunately, the group has no plans to let a drum machine drive the beat on the bandstand. I ask Ivan if I can speak to Green, who just happens to be sitting next to him. How did it feel being left off the recording, I ask the ace drummer, and how do you plan to adapt the new music to the band's more supple rhythmic approach in concert? He demurs on the first issue; regarding the second, he says, "I have to basically duplicate what's there [on the record], but get to another feeling, forget about the machines. Bring more finesse, add a little something else into it."
While the grooves sound stiff on Walkin' in the Shadow of Life, the vocals are top-notch. The baritone growls of Art and Ivan blend righteously with Cyril's soul shout and Aaron's silky croon. The chemistry is best displayed on the first single, a slammin' remake of the Temptations' 1970 social anthem "Ball of Confusion." The Nevilles updated some of the lyrics: "Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration" became "Incarceration, immigration, isolation, intimidation"; "Beatles' new record's a gas" became "Outkast's new record's a gas." The spirit of the song, however, remains intact, with the brothers passing vocals like a relay baton.
"We wanted to say something," Ivan explains, "something necessary to hear. We'd rather speak out in a song than do a big speech on stage."
Time will tell whether the Neville Brothers' new solidarity relates to audiences. Ivan assures that the family act will continue to be generous with its repertoire of NOLA party staples. He's a guy who, in his solo career, has collaborated with stalwarts from the jam scene's jazzier wing: Galactic (also of New Orleans), Soulive and Karl Denson. "We'd like nothing more than to kindle a relationship with that [audience]," Ivan says, adding that the Nevilles are sharing co-bills with Bob Weir's Ratdog. "Take the old, loyal Neville fans and add some new kids to the mix. The Nevilles opened for the Dead. A lot of those kids' parents saw the band."
More simply, Ivan Neville looks at the guys around him and feels a sense of rejuvenation that's bound to rub off on crowds. "I think it'll be like, 'Damn, this is the Neville Brothers that I always loved. Where've they been? They're back.'"