Some of my most formative music-listening moments have come through the Neville Brothers. I got to see them live on two occasions as a teenager, while listening incessantly to what I’d consider their two truly groundbreaking albums, Yellow Moon (1989) and Brother’s Keeper (1990). The grooves were like nothing I’d ever heard before, the social conscience was dramatically overt yet poetic and the combination of the four lead voices (Aaron’s angelically high voice, Cyril’s gruff tenor, Art’s low-toned and often partly-spoken vocals and the unique saxophone style of Charles) meant that there was someone there to cover pretty much any job.
Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville, on the heels of some collaborations via the Meters and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, got together in the 1970s to form their own group together. The rest is musical history, though a sadly marginalized part of that history. Perhaps because of their eclectic, hard-to-categorize music, they have amassed a loyal following and an impressive discography, yet never really broke through to the mainstream, unless you count Aaron’s middle-of-the road solo ballads (which I don’t, though they are some of the best things I’ve ever heard in that vein).
1 ) “My Brother’s Keeper” from Brother’s Keeper
More than half the songs on this album are indelible parts of my consciousness, and it pains me to leave off “Brother Blood,” “Fearless” (featuring Aaron’s sometimes duet partner Linda Ronstadt), “Witness,” “Falling Rain,” “Sons and Daughters” and “Jah Love.” This one has it all, however. Smooth saxophone from Charles, soulful belting from Cyril, ethereal soaring from Aaron, low-toned sermonizing by Art and a slow-burning groove that could only come from New Orleans.
2 ) “Brother John/Iko Iko” from Fiyo on the Bayou
When one thinks of New Orleans R&B, this medley pretty well synthesizes the sly rhythm, incorporating the classic song “Iko Iko,” which I’ll admit I first encountered through the Grateful Dead, who were themselves big fans and supporters of the Nevilles.
3 ) “Fire and Brimstone” from Yellow Moon
Art Takes the lead in this moral study with a ridiculously propulsive groove buoyed by fellow New Orleans stalwarts the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
4 ) “I Can See It In Your Eyes” from Family Groove
This album was largely disappointing to me, as it represented a shift to more commercialized sounds after the previous two albums of moody Daniel Lanois-produced sounds. And yet there are still some classic moments, particularly this slow but funky lament of fading love sung by Aaron.
5 ) “Washable Ink” from The Neville Brothers
Though the Brothers are great songwriters, they also really know what to do with others’ songs. Here, led by Cyril’s plaintive singing, they offer the definitive interpretation of one of John Hiatt’s most noteworthy tunes.
6 ) “Fever” from Live at Tipitina’s (1982)
What was I saying about cover songs? With great respect to the fabulous Little Willie John, this has to be the most potent version of the R&B classic “Fever” that I have ever heard, with particularly effective group vocals.
7 ) “Yellow Moon” from Yellow Moon
The title track of this artistic breakthrough album has a slinky, swampy groove, haunting soprano saxophone by Charles and one of Aaron’s most iconic vocal turns. If one wanted to encapsulate the sound of this era of Neville Brothers, this would be a pretty great place to start.
8 ) “Brother Jake” from Live on Planet Groove
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much in the way of live recordings from this post-Yellow Moon era of Nevilles that come close to capturing the real spirit. The closest I’ve encountered is their performance of this great song from Brother’s Keeper on Saturday Night Live in 1991, something that totally turned me on my head (if you have access to SNL, run, don’t walk to find this). This version isn’t as potent as that, but it still burns.
9 ) “If I Had a Hammer” from Valence Street
One of their later recordings, this track displays their way with a cover song as well as their enduring social conscience. Once you hear this folk classic funked up with a New Orleans groove you’ll wonder why you never thought of it yourself.
10 ) “Soul to Soul” from Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations
This is so low on the list in large part because this mid-90s album is inexplicably out of print. The album contains great cover versions of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” (in tribute to the then-recently departed Jerry Garcia) but my favorite is this definitive interpretation of my favorite latter-day Temptations song.