IN TUNE: Imagine listening to Aaron Neville in a cozy room, backed only by a piano, singing doo wop chestnuts. Add a handful of gospel, blues and soul selections. It made for a magical night Monday at City Winery. And he has two more shows there on tap.
A gig for the ages relied heavily on some of the most beautifully crafted ballads of the 50s — “Stand By Me,” “Earth Angel,” “Daddy’s Home,” “Tears On My Pillow” and, of course, Neville’s very first hit, 1967’s “Tell It Like It Is,” which gave the appreciative crowd a chance to sing along with one of the sweetest set o’ pipes ever to cradle a melody.
It’s no secret that Neville can redefine even the most popular tunes, with a range that can soar to great heights before suddenly swooping to a deep bottom. His catalog, for the most part, is 50-some years of popular music – and even further, as “Stormy Monday” “Amazing Grace,” and “Fever,” among others, demonstrated.
The amazing part is that this youngest of Neville Brothers turned 70 earlier this year. It’s just the way those folks down South age: Allen Touissant, three years older, is still at the top of his game; Dr. John, who turns 70 later this year, is touring up a storm. Neville, meanwhile, hits AND holds the high notes as well as ever. He’s still a massive man, with his distinctive dagger cheek tattoo, the St. Jude gold charm from his mom dangling from his left ear and the Mr. T starter kit hanging from his neck.
The bittersweet part is that Neville can sing for hours and not play a half-dozen or so songs you privately hoped to hear. No “Yellow Moon” or “Louisiana 1927” this time.
Not that anyone seemed to mind: The longtime voice of New Orleans brought so many surprises that no one made a single request.
On a hot summer night in NYC, it was apropos that Neville turned several times to the Drifters. “There Goes My Baby” was a nice touch. The delicate “Don’t Go Please Stay” could have easily been expected. But the best, by far, was the lush “This Magic Moment,” which Neville slowed to a heartwarming, intimate valentine.
He warmed the heart of at least one Fifties aficionado with “Pledging My Love,” a posthumous 1955 hit for Johnny Ace (Google him: The guy had some story). “Cupid” and “Chain Gang” evoked the soulful night beat of their originator. “Mona Lisa,” meanwhile, held special significance: Neville’s folks loved Nat King Cole.
The Sixties had a brief turn – besides “Tell It Like It Is,” Neville did Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” – as did the Seventies, courtesy of an achingly gorgeous version of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and Allen Touissant’s lovely “With You In Mind.” Neville dipped slightly into the Eighties with “I Don’t Know Much,” one of his several popular duets with Linda Ronstadt.
Touissant was part of a robust New Orleans tribute that included “Blue Monday,” popularized by Fats Domino, the Mardi Gras favorite “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia…,” and two by Chris Kenner: “Something You Got Baby” (recorded by Van Morrison and many others) and “Land of 1,000 Dances,” made popular by Wilson Pickett.
Neville, in his Saints cap, also introduced Joe Stampley’s “All These Things” as a 60s song that should have been a hit. It probably would have, had he recorded it back then.
“Cool song?” Neville asked at the end. The crowd cheered its approval.
Michael Goods was an instrumental equal on piano – a rich, improvisational talent.
Neville even flashed a spark himself on the electric keys, where he sat for just about all of the show.
The gospel selections were exquisite, including Leadbelly’s “Meeting at The Building” and the classic spiritual “River of Jordan.” Neville then ended the immensely satisfying set with Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels’ magnificent “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield – all had the chops, but might not have had the nerve, to close the nostalgic night as Neville did: with the final verse of “The Mickey Mouse Club Song.”
Not surprisingly, it worked.