The Wild Tchoupitoulas: The Nevilles bring it home

What is it about a "family band" that steals the heart of an audience?

The Jackson Five, the Allman Brothers, the Chambers Brothers, the Beach Boys, and, of course, the Neville Brothers come immediately to my mind as examples of family bands thst have tugged at America's heartstrings for generations. But what makes the captivating sounds of those family bands work?

For the Neville Brothers, we will soon find out. They will take center stage Friday under the pavilion at Mills Park. As the grand finale of an incredible inaugural year, the Capital City Music Series is hosting a New Orleans dance party starting at 7:30 p.m.

Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril form the Neville Brothers. They are four remarkably talented brothers whose music spans the spectrum of funky spice, heavenly ballads and righteous roots connections. Each brother individually contributes his own style and mix, but they hang together as a composite picture of family music.

Family, family, family, keeps repeating itself when you look at the Nevilles' background. By the time the brothers formed their own group in 1977, the family name had been prominent in New Orleans R&B for more than two decades.

The brothers got together in the studio when they backed the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a "tribe" of Mardi Gras "black Indians" led by the Nevilles' uncle, George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry. "The Wild Tchoupitoulas" was released on Island Records in 1976, and the following year, the Nevilles backed Landry on stage.

Soon after, they were performing their own sets as the Neville Brothers, a vocal group specializing in four-part harmonies. Their first album presented them as something of a disco band, however, and Capitol Records dropped their contract.

It was three years before they recorded their second album, after Bette Midler persuaded a producer to work with them and the Nevilles secured the aid of R&B veteran arranger Wardell Quezergue. The result, which featured Aaron's delicate, quavering tenor on vocal warhorses like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love," as well as New Orleans "second-line" standards like "Iko Iko," was widely praised but rarely bought, and again the Neville Brothers lost their contract.

In 1982, having opened some U.S. shows for the Rolling Stones the year before, they were expected to sign with Rolling Stones Records. Instead, they recorded two live albums in New Orleans for the tiny, independent Black Top and Spindletop labels. They continued to tour, carrying the feathered costumes and additional singers that transformed them into the Wild Tchoupitoulas to climax their shows.

While the Neville Brothers' recording career remained at a commercial impasse -- only "Yellow Moon" and "Brother's Keeper" made the Top 100 -- Aaron Neville's career as a pop balladeer was rekindled through his 1989 duet with Linda Ronstadt, "Don't Know Much," which hit No. 2 on the pop charts. Millions came to marvel at the incongruity of Neville's angelic falsetto voice emerging from his imposing, hugely muscled physique and intimidating, craggy visage.

"The best compliments I received," says Aaron, "come from people saying my voice has given peace to a disturbed child. I want my music to be about healing, healing and hope. I pray to St. Jude, the saint of hopeless causes. The hope I receive from God is the healing hope I put in my song."

Curb and Rounder records capitalized on Aaron's success with best-ofs reaching back to the early '60s, while Linda Ronstadt co-produced "Warm Your Heart", which included another Top 10 hit in "Everybody Plays the Fool." The Grand Tour yielded an "adult contemporary" hit in "Don't Take Away My Heaven," and Aaron Neville even enjoyed brief chart success with "Soulful Christmas " He won a 1994 Grammy for a vocal collaboration with Trisha Yearwood on "I Fall to Pieces."

In 1996, the Nevilles released the more pop-oriented Mitakuye Oyasin "Oyasin/All My Relations." Since then, they have toured relentlessly, and the family bond shows its influence on their 1999 release "Valence Street." The incredible sensitivity that the brothers show regarding their music comes across in each of the "Valence Street" songs.

"One of the reasons I love playing in this band so much is because I get to hear Art and Cyril sing," says Aaron. They have always been my favorite singers, just like Charles is my favorite horn player. I am blessed to have been born into this family."

Phil Caterino is the newly appointed executive director of the Brewery Arts Center


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