As I have discussed before, the Neville Brothers remain one of the most influential bands in my entire life. I have seen them more times in concert than any other act, and although they are sadly a part of our musical past, with Art and Charles Neville having moved on to that musical jambalaya in the sky, I still love them to this day. For me, the Neville Brothers started, and always primarily served as a live music experience. Producers and record labels tried to artificially capture their amazing live sound and reshape it into some commercially marketable form that rarely worked. There are one or two other studio records they released that are worthy of some discussion, but the only one that was consistently great enough for me to include on this list was their 1989 release, “Yellow Moon”. Teaming up with the team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who had such success with artists like U2 and many others, while not true to their live sound, this album is a beautiful collection of songs that filled the Nevilles catalog in the 1980s and beyond.
The record opens with one of their ‘80s staples, “My Blood”, sung by Cyril Neville, and it is a passionate appeal for worldwide freedom and equality. The title track comes next, and it is one of the very best songs they ever made. Written and sung by Aaron Neville, there is a beautiful interplay with his unmatched vocals and brother Charles Neville on the saxophone. I just love this song so much, and I hope you will as well. Art takes the lead next on “Fire and Brimstone”, and the bass line on this song is just insane. As I researched to see who was on bass at this juncture, it made me smile to see the name Tony Hall, who now plays with the next generation Nevilles as one of TWO bass players in the funk band Dumpstaphunk.
Next comes Aaron’s take on the Sam Cooke social justice classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. I think this is the 4th version of this song we have covered since the beginning of the blog, and it never loses its power. I will confess that for many years, this was the only version I knew of this song, even though I did know it was originally a Sam Cooke song. Whether it was Cooke, Aretha, Otis Redding or Aaron Neville or any other African American who grew up in the 20th century and were subject to the disgusting and pitiful treatment they were offered by a country that completely failed in its basic principles for most of its existence, this song is still unfortunately fully relevant and applicable in 2022.
The overt and passionate appeal for fairness and equality continues with “Sister Rosa”, Cyril’s heartfelt tribute to Rosa Parks. Her courage serves as an inspiration to this day, and you can even hear the Nevilles blend a little hip-hop groove into this significant song. Not ducking social consciousness for one track, Aaron covers the first of two Bob Dylan tracks, the anti-war anthem, “With God On Our Side”.
Side two opens with a long-time Neville live track that finally made it to the studio, “Wake Up”, where Cyril takes on the terrifying shadow cast by nuclear weapon stockpiles. The mood shifts back to the funky with Aaron’s song “Voodoo”, which was another live staple that starts with an amazing blend of bass and percussion. Like the title track, the subtle and infectious appeal of this song, also augmented by Charles on sax, is undeniable. Aaron then drops the second Dylan track, with more of a blues twist, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”.
The emotional power of the Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” absolutely shakes me and almost always moves me to tears. The cycle of life is one we all wrestle with from birth to death, and taking turns, Art, Aaron and Cyril all sing this song with a compelling pull, each citing a personal moment of loss within their wonderful family to which we can all relate. It is remarkable how different these three brothers sound, but each of them is among my very favorite vocalists from any genre.
“Healing Chant” is a Charles Neville saxophone instrumental piece for which he received a Grammy Award, and the album ends with an upbeat celebration of the Mardi Gras Indian culture that is pervasive to the music of New Orleans and the Neville family. This album is not what exactly what you would see or hear in a live Nevilles show, but it is their very best collection of studio-recorded work and remains as a timeless legacy to this underappreciated and unbelievably talented musical family. The fact that neither the Neville Brothers or Art’s other band The Meters is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a complete joke and absolute travesty.