Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat
Cyril Neville returns to the blues
By Thomas Fawcett,
1:54PM, Wed. May 13, 2009
Cyril Neville made his name as a musical chameleon, slithering between funk and R&B, rock and reggae. Brand New Blues is Neville’s first album in eight years and, as the title suggests, a return to notes of an ocean hue. After all, how could the New Orleans native – exiled in Austin since the 2005 storm – sing anything but the blues? Like many Crescent City natives, Neville no longer holds his breath waiting for promised federal funds, instead piecing his home back together as time and money permits. Truth be told, he is in no hurry.
“People continue to ask when we are coming back home,” Neville explains by phone while driving between East Coast gigs with his band Tribe 13. “I drove through my neighborhood the last time we were down there after dark and it ain’t the same neighborhood that it was before Katrina. And it ain’t gonna be.”
To be clear, Brand New Blues isn’t a record about Katrina. The album jumps off with Jimmy Reed’s “I Found Joy,” where Neville mixes the sound of the great Chicago bluesman with a spike of B3 from big brother Art. “I just imagined what it would have been like if Jimmy Reed and Professor Longhair would have met,” Neville muses of the tune. He revisits Reed on the slow blues of “Blue, Blue Water” and channels Bobby “Blue” Bland on the brooding gospel of the Brook Benton-penned “I’ll Take Care of You.”
Neville doesn’t pay the storm any mind until several minutes into the album’s swan song, a reading of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver” mixed with a swath of James Brown's gospel street preaching. “When I first saw what happened to New Orleans my blood ran cold,” he cries on the track. “One thing I know, when you walking down in the streets of New Orleans, you ain’t never gonna be alone! Some spirit gonna come up, tap you on your shoulder, and whisper in your ear. I heard the wind blowing. I saw the water rising. I heard people screaming. I witnessed people dying.”
The ad lib hits with the emotional force of a category five. “The stuff that is on it about New Orleans, that wasn’t really intended," he says. "We were just gonna make 'Slave Driver' into blues and the spirit just got in me and what came up came out. I didn’t sit down and write that or plan it out, that performance came out like the spirit intended it to come out.”
Forging reggae into blues is easy alchemy for Neville, who considers New Orleans part of the Deep South as well as the Northernmost city in the Caribbean. “I’ve always felt like reggae music was the blues with a Trenchtown rhythm, an island rhythm,” he explains. “My whole thing is mixing different types of gumbos, different types of music that I’ve been exposed to.”
Neville’s intro to reggae came from his brother Art, who returned from an island-skipping jaunt with the Meters with a copy of The Harder They Come tucked in his bag. It was love at first listen and Neville has immersed himself in Jamaican music and culture ever since, pioneering the second line reggae sound with the Uptown All-Stars and touring with Ziggy and Stephen Marley.
“From being with them I noticed that the way of life in Jamaica was a lot like the way of life in New Orleans in sense of family, in sense of culture, in sense of history,” Neville says. “We laughed together a lot about how many similarities we had in the way we talk, similarities in the food. It’s the whole nine yards about how we feel about life, how we approach music, everything. Old New Orleans was connected to a lot of places in the third world as well as France, England, and the United States. When I was growing up a lot of people that I knew, including my own family, had ancestors that came from those islands, particularly Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad.”
The Neville family, of course, has also become synonymous with New Orleans R&B. The Meters, led by Art Neville, were the cornerstone of the 1960s and 1970s New Orleans funk scene and count only the J.B.’s as rivals for the title of greatest instrumental funk outfit of all time. Cyril lent his percussion skills to four Meters albums, including the 1975 classic Fire on the Bayou, and it was the Meters lineup that helped launch Neville’s career, backing little brother on his funk-strutting 1969 debut single “Gossip” and flipside “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind” for the Josie label.
“Those are the guys that you hear on everything that came out of Sea-Saint Studios during the late 1960s all the way into the 70s and 80s,” Neville gushes of the group. “Everything from Lee Dorsey to Patti LaBelle and Robert Palmer – that’s the Meters playing on it. I’m very proud to have been a part of that when it was in its heyday and I’m proud now to take the stage with the Funky Meters with Art and George [Porter].”
From the Meters and the Wild Tchoupitoulas to the Neville Brothers and Tribe 13, Cyril has added his own flavor to New Orleans’ musical gumbo – a word he peppers throughout our conversation – for four decades. Brand New Blues is his latest contribution to the bayou recipe book, even if he now feels like a stranger in his own hometown.
“When I lay down and go to sleep at night I dream of New Orleans but the New Orleans I come to now I don’t recognize,” he laments. “I recognize glimpses of what used to be my life but the majority of it has been erased. The city was being re-gentrified and a lot of pieces were being moved around on the playing field even before Katrina happened. Katrina just made it easier for some of those pieces to be moved completely off the board.”