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Friday, Oct. 24, 2008
The Neville Brothers
Three years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, the city is still struggling to get back on its feet. Many residents who fled, especially the poorer ones, have not returned and probably never will. However, according to Art Neville, the musicians who provided New Orleans with its unique cultural identity have mostly returned.
"I think the music scene has recovered pretty well," he says over the phone from his home there, which he points out is on the same street where he grew up with his three famous brothers. "A lot of the musicians who left after the storm are back. There are a lot of places in New Orleans that keep 'em working. I mean, I make my living on the road, that's my thing. I could hang out in a club, but I like hanging out on the road."
At 70 years of age, Neville has the right to hang out wherever he likes, and the Neville Brothers are still popular enough to spend the better part of their year touring in style. "We travel pretty comfortably," he says in his mellifluous bass drawl. "We've got two buses. And when we fly we travel comfortably, too."
The Neville Brothers have been called the first musical family of New Orleans, since they are probably the best-known practitioners of the style of rhythm and blues that's been peculiar to the city for at least the last half century. However, the Nevilles are more of a mixed bag. Art, the oldest, started playing professionally in 1954 and became one of the city's busiest pianists and singers in the late '50s and '60s. More significantly, he is credited with giving New Orleans music the funk that has made its contemporary incarnation so indelible.
"Fats Domino and Ray Charles influenced my playing and singing," he says. "But the greatest live performer I ever saw was James Brown. I was just a kid the first couple of times I saw him. I can't even remember what year it was. But he was just one of the best dudes out there, and he was always working."
In 1966, Art formed The Meters with bassist George Porter, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and guitarist Le Nocentelli. The group defined New Orleans funk if they didn't outright invent it. In addition to being the backing band for the city's major acts at the time, such as Lee Dorsey and Earl King, they went on to open for the Rolling Stones on tour and record with Paul McCartney. Art's younger brothers, Aaron and Charles, often sang with the group.
"We had always played together off and on," recalls Art. "And then we did an album with my uncle, George Landry of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and George said to us, 'Man, you should do this all the time.' It had never occurred to us before. Once we started playing together it was the easiest thing in the world. I mean, what could be more natural than playing with your brothers?"
With a fourth sibling, Cyril, on board, the Neville Brothers were in business and The Meters were no more (though Art and George still occasionally tour as The Funky Meters with Art's son Ian). Art's presence guaranteed that the band would retain The Meters' signature funk. Aaron's high, sweet tenor gave the group a ticket into the more traditional R&B and pop worlds, while Charles, who spent some years in New York as a session saxophonist, brought genuine jazz credentials to the ensemble.
While the Nevilles carry on the traditions of New Orleans R&B, they remain difficult to pin down stylistically, and Art won't even attempt it. "It's hard to explain what our shows are like," he says. "All I can say is, we're four different musicians who do things separately and do things together."
Since Katrina, their role as ambassadors of New Orleans music has become more vital. In addition to touring with another native son, Dr. John, the Nevilles closed out this year's annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was the first time they had performed at the event since Katrina, and locals said their appearance proved that the city had finally come back.
Art says they'll close the festival again next year.
"I'll definitely keep doing it as long as I'm alive," he says wistfully. "I've been noticing lately how the older musicians, the ones older than me, are dying out. But I think I've got a couple of years left."
The Neville Brothers' first Japan tour in 12 years takes place on Oct. 26 at Osaka Koseinenkin Kaikan (6:30 p.m.; ¥8,000;  7732-8888); Oct. 27 at Nagoya Bottom Line (7:30 p.m.; ¥7,500;  741-1620); and Oct. 28 and 29 at JCB Hall, Tokyo (7 p.m.; ¥8,000;  5453-8899).