Sunday, July 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 029: The Neville Brothers Band: Fiyo on the Bayou

My favorite album by my favorite New Orleans musicians and one of my favorite bands on the planet. The Neville Brothers—saxophonist Charles, keyboardist Art, singer Aaron, and percussionist Cyril—are New Orleans music royalty, whose uncle George Landry was Big Chief Jolley of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe. They grew up in the 13th Ward of New Orleans where there was music everywhere for every occasion—bands, street parades, parties, picnics, fish fries, and funerals. They learned harmony singing in the Catholic church and doo-wop on the street corner (see Jason Foose and Jonathan Berry’s fantastic Up from the Cradle of Jazz) and made their first records in the early Sixties, as individual artists. Art (“Poppa Funk”) led the Meters, the best of the New Orleans rhythm sections—and therefore and by extension one of the best on the planet—and they laid down tracks for an awful lot of pop stars who thought they needed an injection of the funk. The Meters, like Dave Bartholomew, like Dr John/Mac Rebennac, like the bands Charles, Aaron, and Cyril were involved in, also experienced the typical New Orleans story of lies, rip-offs, and losses—virtually no musician out of the Big Easy escaped unscathed—they all got ripped off.

But, eventually, the brothers were able to get together as a family again: they’ve all always played the best with family, both as brothers, with their uncle George Landry, Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and with an extended cast of nephews and nieces (nephew Ivan was the secret weapon keyboard/vocal behind Keith Richards’s X-Pensive Winos).

Again: they never played better than as a family. This record came together in 1981 with the support and nominal production of Bette Midler (say what you like about the Divine Miss M, but she’s always had a phenomenal nose for music and musicians). The Brothers have done a number of discs for several labels since then (most notably, the fantastic live set Nevillization for Black Top and the superb concert film At Tipitina’s with a large cast of guests), and there are aspects of this record that date it to the Seventies, but the air of excitement and reunion is palpable.

And the sense of reunion extends beyond the brothers to the other sidemen: both Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint were involved in writing the horn charts and the section was full of NO stalwarts. The most powerful aspect of all, though, is the tunes: many of these songs are based on old New Orleans or Afro-Caribbean tunes, several of them had been recorded by various Brothers in other bands, but these are the archetypical versions.

So, when the Brothers play these tunes, you hear the city’s musical heritage not just in the lazy yet in-the-pocket raggedy horn charts of Toussaint and Bartholomew, the rattle-tat second-line snare drumming of the great Zigaboo Modeliste, the conga-playing of Brother Cyril or the otherworldly funky-angelic soprano of Brother Aaron (a man who looks the ex-con stevedore he once was but who sings like a black saint). You hear it in the history of the songs themselves: in the very first track, with a staggering descending keyboard gliss into the powerhouse horns of Hey Pocky Way (whose key title line we think harkens back to the French Creoles who helped shape the city’s cultural life); in the rolling piano of Brother Art, which reaches back to Professor Longhair and to the nameless piano professors of Storyville and the Irish Channel; the staggering deep funk of Fiyo on the Bayou; the deepest possible roots in Brother John/Iko Iko, which marries ancient street chants of the Mardi Gras Indians with the girl-group groove of the Dixie cups; the transcendent falsetto doo-wop of Aaron’s Mona Lisa (which asinine commentators think is “disposable”); and the rum-and-coke-in-the-sun Afro-Caribbean groove in their cover of Louis Jordan’s Run Joe.
I used to live in New Orleans, for a brief, confusing time (nobody can process the complexity of a mature love affair at 19), working as a doorman at a bar in the French Quarter called Ichabod’s. It was a fierce town even then, and to be part of the night-time community was to risk drugs, booze, disease, and a very self-destructive lifestyle.

But on every street corner, in every corner bar, every parade, every funeral, every picnic, political rally, and store opening, there was music, and the music was voodoo magic. You could walk the streets of the Quarter at 7am on a Tuesday morning and the music would drift past you like the smells of bougainvillea and chicory coffee, of filé and of levee water.

There was no place on earth like New Orleans for music—and, in the wake of Katrina and Bush’s criminal negligence, there never will be again. But I was there when, and I remember the way it was, and this record takes me back home.

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