Loving New Orleans
Dr. John and the Neville Brothers
From the February, 2010 issue
Dr. John, born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., and the four Neville Brothers have been making music in and away from New Orleans for about fifty years now. They're not household names, but most people with an interest in musical roots have some acquaintance with Aaron Neville's falsetto, soaring to the point of evanescence, and Dr. John's rollicking blues piano and theatrical fusions of blues and psychedelia. They've worked together in the past on numerous occasions, and with any luck at all their joint appearance at the Michigan Theater on February 17 (one day too late for Mardi Gras, wouldn't you know) should be a terrific example of quintessential New Orleans music-making.
Which means what, exactly? Neither of these acts conforms to the frat-boy hedonism sometimes associated with Louisiana music, and they sound quite different from each other. Dr. John is known for his rather wild take on the figure of the old piano "professor," and the Nevilles for their gorgeously smooth R&B and for great contemporary songs, such as "Sister Rosa," rooted in New Orleans traditions. But the Neville Brothers and Dr. John work well together because they draw from common sources and expand upon them creatively. They do a few of the same pieces, including the inscrutable "Iko Iko," and they've both tapped into something old, powerful, and generally impervious to tampering by the wider music industry--if not, unfortunately, to hurricane winds and subsequent neglect.
That "something" stretches back to the Afro-Caribbean layer of New Orleans culture. The music of both Dr. John and the Neville Brothers reveals itself, if you focus on it, as extraordinarily complex rhythmically. Hear everything that's going on, for example, in the rhythms of one of Dr. John's psychedelic swamp epics from his debut album, Gris-Gris, which after four decades still sounds like a set of discoveries other musicians have barely begun to exploit. Or hear the number of rhythmic forces pushing against the chorus in the Neville's famed "Hey Pocky Way,"
a song which goes back to their early years as the Meters. The rhythms in this music don't just make you tap your feet, they stretch your mind.
A way of music-making drawn on African sources allows these musicians to make almost anything their own. The Nevilles can cover a song like Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," not a likely choice for them, without breaking a sweat, while Dr. John applies his piano to pure jazz readings of pop standards. He has a way of tying together R&B, 1950s pop, jazz, psychedelia, and the straight-ahead rock of his one big hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time," and reattaching them all to their common root.
For the most part, these methods don't transfer well to the medium of recordings--they depend on making rhythmic decisions that evolve as part of the interaction between musicians and audience. That's one reason Dr. John and the Neville Brothers aren't as well known as they should be, and one more reason to warm up your late winter with New Orleans music at its best.
[Originally published in February, 2010.]
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