The Neville Brothers, who've been called "the heart and soul of New Orleans" by the city's Jazz & Heritage Festival's longtime producer Quint Davis, have been pumping out their infectious anthems for longer than some of the band's fans have been alive. Keyboardist Art, saxophonist Charles, singer Aaron and percussionist Cyril have thrilled audiences worldwide with the funk, blues, jazz, R&B, soul and New Orleans rhythms of "Iko Iko," "Brother John," "Hey Pocky Way," "Fire on the Bayou" and other staples of their repertoire.
The Nevilles, celebrating the release of their new "Valence Street" disc, fired up those irresistible grooves and heavenly harmonies last month for a room full of radio programmers in New Orleans. The nine-piece band mixed familiar songs with new tunes like "Over Africa" and "Mona Lisa," visibly energizing their audience during the short set.
Still, how does this family band maintain enthusiasm for the thing they do, as familiar as an old friend and relatively unchanged after all these years? "We have to share what I call an emotional and spiritual link as the music happens," says Charles. "We have to have that in order for the music to happen. People get into music here [in New Orleans] for the purpose of being able to express something of their spirits and their hearts, and not for the purpose of trying to make hit records or get rich and famous."
But the band's failure to make much commercial impact for so long has nearly jelled the critical response into a cliché: The Nevilles' stage magic, the thinking goes, can't be translated into a studio-made sound likely to move units. Even classic albums such as 1981's "Fiyo on the Bayou," 1984's live "Neville-Ization" and 1989's "Yellow Moon," which nearly did justice to the band's live vibe, still failed to climb high on the album charts.
So it might be folly, and a little bit cruel, to suggest that "Valence Street" might be a good shot at the kind of commercial breakthrough Aaron has accomplished in duets with Linda Ronstadt (particularly "Don't Know Much" and "All My Life") and on his own.
The evidence is on the first two singles. "Little Piece of Heaven" is a fluffy pop ballad sung by Aaron over a light R&B groove that would have worked just as well on one of his solo albums. More important in terms of selling records is "Mona Lisa," a collaboration with Wyclef Jean. The track weds a rubbery hip-hop beat and an instrumental riff to Jean's sassy dialogue, Aaron's fluttering singing and the siblings' typically enchanting vocal work.
The collaboration was the result of fortuitous circumstance. The Nevilles were at the New York offices of Columbia Records, their new label. "We were talking with the A&R guys, and they asked us what other Columbia artists we might want to work with," Charles says. Immediately Cyril mentioned Jean, who happened to be in the building at the time. "He said, 'Hey, man, what a coincidence. This is the song I wrote with Aaron Neville's voice in mind.'"
Valence Street also includes two self-referential tunes. The title track borrows its name from the street where the Nevilles had their childhood home. "That song does encompass some of the elements of jazz, street beat, New Orleans rhythm & blues, and rock & roll that we grew up on," says Charles.
"Real Funk," penned by "Poppa Funk" Art, has the songwriter toasting the potency of the Nevilles' musical gumbo. "We're the brothers, we're the funky four, like to sing and dance in the neighborhood. We're bad as lightning and we loud as thunder. Funk so good."
Yeah, they're really all that.