I know they're supposed to be the Kings of New Orleans and all that razzmatazz, but the thing I've always liked best about THE NEVILLE BROTHERS has been the work they did before forming the Neville Brothers proper.
Piano-pumping eldest brother Art was the first to get into the business way back in the '50s with the Hawketts, a weird, primal combo whose recording of "Mardi Gras Mambo" went on to become the unofficial anthem of the legendary sleazefest. His solo recordings of the period were similarly greasy and inspired, in keeping with regional R&B traditions. Brother Aaron—he of the voice that sounds like a petal from a magnolia blossom flittering its way to the ground—is the most famous of the lot, of course, having recorded the R&B hit "Tell It Like It Is" in 1966. But much of his lesser-known output of the time (and earlier) is the real stuff to check out, tunes like the Hank Ballardesque "Why Worry" and the chilling "Jailhouse." Art and guitarist Cyril were hired by storied producer Allen Toussaint in 1968 as the house band for his Sansu Enterprises, where they worked with such heavies as Lee Dorsey, Earl King and Patti LaBelle. Art, meanwhile, also formed the Meters around the same time, an instrumental group often likened to a funkier version of Booker T & the MGs. The Meters even had a couple of minor pop hits, such as "Cissy Strut" and "Sophisticated Cissy." In 1975, Art, Aaron, Cyril and saxophonist Charles teamed up with their uncle George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry to record The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album widely and correctly considered among the greatest records ever to emerge from New Orleans.
Add it all up, and you have a lineage that was a fraternal supergroup unto itself when the guys finally formed the Neville Brothers in 1977.
Which is what depresses me, more than the prospect of November's presidential election: the Nevilles have never lived up to the promise of their gilded roots. From the get-go, when their self-titled debut album turned out to be an artistically and financially dismal disco effort, the Brothers' ambitions seemed at least as commercial as they were musical. Subsequent efforts, such as 1981's Fiyo on the Bayou and 1990's Yellow Moon, were vast improvements, but though many critics had by now bought into the hype—this was the Greatest Band From New Orleans—the music, even at its best, always struck me as more than a bit safe and unfocused. It was as if they believed that by at least touching upon every conceivable musical base, they might somehow score brownie points in one genre or another. In the Neville Brothers' sound, you can hear strains of funk, soul, blues, jazz, Creole, Cajun, country and reggae, but you know what? If you throw some steak, chicken, fish, vegetables and potatoes into a Cuisinart and let that sucker rip, the resultant paste will taste like dog chow.
Then there's the Aaron Problem. Somewhere along the line, the Famous Neville started overusing that delicate, melismatic voice until he became a caricature of himself. And he also deigned to record MOR caca duets with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Trisha Yearwood. It's a long, hard fall from the glory of "Jailhouse" to the hork-inducing pap of "Don't Take Away My Heaven."
Despite many misgivings, I don't actually hate this band. I don't even dislike them, really. At times, if I'm in the proper mood, I can even find them moderately enjoyable—particularly live, when they seem to cut loose a lot more than they do in the studio. At the very least, the guys reliably put on an energetic, sweat-soaked show. And so, in a week as slow as this one, you might as well check out the Neville Brothers Tuesday night at the Sun Theatre.
While we're on the subject of Louisiana euphony, there's some new gumbo-yaya-whatever CD releases you need to know about. LIL' BAND O' GOLD is billed as a "supergroup," even though I haven't heard of most of the players except for accordionist Steve Riley of the Mamou Playboys. Suffice it to say these guys have put time in with the likes of Beausoleil, Sonny Landreth, Slim Harpo and Philip Glass (?!?) and that their self-titled debut on Shanachie Records kicks with all the grit the Neville brothers had before they became the Neville Brothers. This is mostly swamp rock and R&B of the order that used to be released by Excello Records back in the day, played with oodles o' muscle and ingratiating simplicity and recorded with history in mind (tremolos cranked up like Bo Diddley, reverb chambers shimmering like this was all captured in a Quonset hut). Lovely, really.
KEITH FRANK AND THE SOILEAU ZYDECO BAND is another group I've never heard of before, even though Ready or Not (also on Shanachie) is their ninth release and the label's bio asserts that Frank is "the hottest and best-selling zydeco artist on the scene today." Hell, I live in Southern California—what do I know? Well, I know that this is some positively weird-ass shit, that's what I know. While this is an organic zydeco band, the music is heavily hip-hop influenced—the rhythm section simulates mechanical beats as played on real live drums and bass, and Frank's percussive vocal phrasing assumes the cadence of rapping. Meanwhile, the songwriting and instrumentation are in a traditional zydeco vein, and Frank shows fine taste in covers as well (Guitar Slim's "Well I Done Got Over It" and Little Bob & the Lollipops' "I Got Loaded"). Frank is an adequate accordionist and emphatically bizarre singer—throughout the album, he pushes out a spooky, pitchless falsetto that sounds like Auntie Midge's poodle being screwed by an angry rottweiler. I haven't yet made up my mind whether I find all this acceptable, but there's no denying that Frank's sound and vision are unique, and for that, at least, he deserves a lot of credit.
World-music specialist label Putumayo enters the Loozy-Anna sweepstakes with an anthology simply titled Zydeco. Admirably annotated and representing a wide range of styles, regions and eras, everyone from legends like Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis and Queen Ida to middle-shelf entries like Buckwheat Zydeco and Geno Delafose to little-known artists such as Rosie Ledet and Joe KK is included. Best of all, this is not a predictable Greatest Hits-type collection, as the cuts have been selected for their potency rather than familiarity. A personal fave is by a high school student named Chris Ardoin, who slowly turns a chooglin' original called "Stay In or Stay Out" into a raging cover of "Pass the Dutchie" without missing a beat. Et toi!
THE NEVILLE BROTHERS PLAY AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. TUES., 8:30 P.M. $36.50-$42.
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