For the majority of my life, I have lived in one of three states, Colorado, Florida and Virginia. There are two other locations that earn an honorable mention. The first is California, where my father lived and worked for several years in the 1970s on a temporary assignment. The second, and more significant, is Louisiana. My parents moved there in 1986 for a ten-year stint, just as I was finishing my first year of college. While it struck me primarily as a better place to visit than live, I spent enough time there over the rest of my college days to completely fall in love with the music scene in New Orleans. I mentioned previously that it started with a trip to see Dixieland Jazz at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter with my dad, but I quickly learned that some of the best music was to be found far away from the tawdry excess of the French Quarter. Uptown, at the intersection of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, is my favorite indoor music venue of all time, Tipitina’s. The building was first constructed in 1912, and opened in its current form in 1977. The club is named for a song by New Orleans piano legend Professor “Fess” Longhair, who has a bust in the entrance as you come into the club.
In the 1980s, two bands ruled the local scene at Tipitina’s. One was The Radiators, and although very popular in New Orleans, I have never really connected with their sound. However, the other act was a realization of the most amazingly talented musical family I have ever seen, the Neville family of New Orleans. We have heard previously from The Meters, featuring Art “Poppa Funk” Neville on keyboards and vocals. When you take Art, and combine him with his three younger brothers, each with their own unique musical gift, you have a remarkable gumbo of sound and spirit. After leaving The Meters, Art formed the Neville Brothers, with brothers Charles, a Grammy-award saxophone player, soulful R&B legend Aaron, and reggae-rock-soul master Cyril, who also played a multitude of percussion. Over the course of time, many guitarists and bass players have come into the band. Brian Stoltz was the primary guitarist from this era, and one of the true secrets to the success of the band was the remarkable “Mean” Willie Green on drums.
Although today’s album, “Neville-ization” was actually released in 1984, it was recorded in 1982, so that is where I have sequenced it on my list. This gem is a collection of live performances by the band at their home club at Tipitina’s, and oh, what an experience that was to see and hear. I first caught them in the spring of 1987 at Tips, during my first Mardi Gras visit with my friend Lorenzo. He had seen them open for the Grateful Dead on several occasions, and when we saw them that night, Stevie Ray Vaughan actually sat in on a song, which was mind-blowing. In this old, wooden concert bar with perfect acoustics, the mixture of funk, soul, jazz, R&B, reggae and rock and roll was unlike anything I had heard before. The combination of rhythm and percussion created a groove that moved the room for hours. Typically, their first set would start around 10:30 PM, and they would play until midnight. Then, as they took about a 20-minute intermission, most of the bar would spill out into the streets to revel, drink, smoke, or do whatever, before returning back indoors for another hour-plus of music that would end close to 2AM.
Once I discovered their sound, I became a passionate and dedicated lifelong fan. I would plan my visits to New Orleans around their schedule, and as I got older, I would see them anywhere I could, whether it was Tipitina’s or what other venue they might play at. I have estimated I probably saw them about 15 times at Tips, and in total, probably about 35 times, which far outnumbers any other act I have seen live. Sadly, they stopped performing in 2015. I will never forgive myself for not going to their farewell show, and since then, we have lost Poppa Funk and Charles. Their music lives on, through the occasional contributions and performances from Aaron and Cyril, as well as the sound of Aaron’s son Ivan, and Art’s son Ian, in the band Dumpstaphunk, along with Nick Daniels III and Tony Hall, who both played bass for the Neville Brothers at some point.
Many of my Colorado friends joined me at some point to them play, but the one friend who stands out as my lifelong Neville companion is my first roommate out of college and coworker Matt, who was also a professional saxophone player, and a damn good one. Matt and I share a love of all things New Orleans, and I love all the great memories I have together with him, including a triumphant return to the Crescent City with my friend Shane in 1994 for Mardi Gras and a Nevilles Tipitina’s show.
Thanks for bearing with me on this extremely long setup, but I can’t overstate how much this band has been a part of my life since that first experience in 1987. There are three great live albums you can find on most streaming services, or better yet in your local record store, but I chose this one for the list as it is the only one that was recorded at Tipitina’s. It was originally released as an eight-song album, and thankfully the current expanded release has a total of 16 songs. If I had to recommend the must listens for a new listener, I would pick their version of “Fever”, “Mojo Hannah”, Aaron’s big hit from the 1960’s, the beautiful “Tell It Like It Is”, Charles’ sax masterpiece on “Caravan”, and the Professor “’Fess” Longhair classic “Big Chief”. From the newer bonus tracks, I would add in “Fiyo On The Bayou”, perhaps the funkiest song on the album, and often the set opener, featuring Poppa Funk himself, and two unforgettable medleys. The first medley is their extended version of “Iko Iko”, a song I love so much I probably have ten different versions saved on my playlist. This was always the most celebrated and exuberant moment in the show, when the crowd sing-along “Hey Now… Hey Now”, would send us all into a frenzy. On this version, you hear a great walk-on of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, which is a perfect fit. And… after 2-3 hours of dancing and decadence, the show almost always closed with Aaron, in his absolutely angelic voice, taking us to church with “Amazing Grace”, followed by a collection of gospel beats. Later in their career, Cyril would typically add on the Curtis Mayfield composition “People Get Ready”. Drenched in the sweat of the Big Easy and a night of dancing, and completely drained, we would then finally retire for the night, completely satisfied and satiated by this musical magic.
If you find yourself in New Orleans, please make the time to go visit Tipitina’s, and better yet, try to line it up with when Dumpstaphunk is on the bill. Nothing will ever quite match the collective talents of those four Neville Brothers, but their spirit, as the act who would close down the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) each year, lives on forever.
“Iko Iko All Day…”