Aaron Neville

It’s a family affair

Despite pursuing various solo projects throughout the course of their career, the Neville Brothers are at their best performing and recording together. That, says Aaron Neville, is simply what they were put here to do.

 By Naila Francis

There are three things Aaron Neville holds dear: music, prayer and family. Not exactly in that order — none necessarily weighing more in significance than the other.

They couldn’t possibly because all three are woven together, inextricably, powerfully, deeply, as they have been for most of his life.

And as demonstrated on the Neville Brothers’ latest project.

“Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life,” the brothers’ first album in five years, is a testament to the ties that bind, the faith that sustains and a music that has endured in a fickle industry wont to subscribe to fad and formula.

“It’s cool being a family together,” says Aaron, 63. “And this album is different from the rest of the other Neville Brothers’ albums. This is a mixture of everybody on all of the songs — and when we get on stage, it’s like, man, that’s the stuff.”

The brothers — who along with Aaron include Art, 66, Charles, 55, and Cyril, 53 — have such a busy touring schedule that getting into the studio to produce a new album was a challenge, but “Walkin,’ ” says Aaron, was a project always in progress.

The disc, which combines their signature heady blend of funk, gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues — all fired by the conviction of their socially conscious lyrics — celebrates a newfound autonomy. It was recorded in their own recently completed studio in New Orleans: Neville Neville Land.

“Through the years, we’ve been having record companies send producers that are trying to make the Nevilles something else,” says Aaron. “We had a chance to do this ourselves and we had a lot of ideas. We have our own studio, so we didn’t have to worry about rushing it, so we were doing it in between touring. We would tour for a while and then we’d go back into the studio. And then while we were on the road, we would talk about it. It really was like a labor of love being able to work on this together.”

Enriching the experience was the presence of a younger generation of Nevilles, in particular, Aaron’s son, Ivan, who served as co-producer while lending his vocals and multi-instrumental skills, and Art’s son, Ian, who played guitar. Aaron’s other sons, Jason and Aaron “Fred” Jr., also contributed, Jason on the driving anthemic “Can’t Stop the Funk” and Aaron Jr. on “Your Life (Fallen Soldiers),” while Cyril’s son, Omari, had a hand in the poignant “Junkie Child.”

“This is special because my dad died when I was 25. He was 50 years old,” says Aaron Sr. “So to be onstage with my son and I can look over and see him on the stage, I think it’s a blessing.”

The brothers, who will perform at Havana in New Hope on Sunday, have had a long and varied career, each starting out with various solo projects before uniting as a group in 1976, and embarking on several solo ventures since but always returning to the core.

Their music, gritty, galvanizing instrumental arrangements integrated with compelling harmonies, alternatingly soulful and delicate, has always born the stamp of their native New Orleans rhythm and blues legacy. And always, the brothers have strived to make it relevant, to sing with words that connect and inspire.

Their remake of The Temptations’ classic “Ball of Confusion,” for example, updates the lyrics to reflect more contemporary concerns such as war, gun control and unemployment. And several tracks from “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” were taken from a poetry book Aaron wrote years ago.

“Junkie Child,” an entreaty to drug-abusing youths, was rewritten from a poem, “Little Junkie Boy,” as was “Brothers,” a heartfelt reflection on how the men have grown together and continue to rely on each other for support.

“We were young boys together, we were teenagers together, we were young men together and now we’re grown men together, and we’re with our kids — so we have to show them the right way to do things,” says Aaron on why positive lyrics, and songs that speak to the times, are so important to the group.

“It’s hard sometimes to sing about love and everything is peachy-keen when it ain’t,” he says. “You can’t turn on the TV or read the newspaper without seeing all this hardship going on around the world and you can’t push that under the rug.”

If the brothers can inject some joy, offer a glimmer of hope or provide some guidance to others, then many of their own struggles and battles with their own personal demons — from drugs and alcohol to illness — will not have been in vain.

“This music was God’s gift to me,” says Aaron. “I remember as a kid, whatever else was going on in the world, I could listen to spirituals on the radio, doo-wop, great groups singing all that pretty music and I could sing with them — and that gave me hope, let me know things weren’t so bad. I could sing to myself an ‘Ave Maria,’ the Lord’s Prayer and it would make me all right.

“My voice was the instrument in helping me through those times. If I didn’t have that voice, I don’t think I would still be here.”

And from the letters and e-mails they receive, it seems that their music has similarly moved countless others.

Aaron, who wears an earring with an image of St. Jude — the patron saint of hopeless cases — and professes a great affinity for well-read verses such as “Footprints” and “The Prayer of St. Francis,” has a simple explanation for that effect.

“It’s the God in me touching the God in them,” he says. “Life is a thing where you’re born and then you owe a debt. It’s all what you do in between. You can’t be all about yourself. Try to reach out and help somebody on the way.

“I really believe we were put here to sing these songs to people. Somebody up there likes us because we’ve been through hell and back and still here we are doing what we were put here to do.”

– The Intelligencer