New Orleans icon Aaron Neville brings it on 'home'
Grief over the losses, gratitude for being spared and a desire to uplift those people trying rebuild their lives are all apparent. But it's nostalgia for pre-Katrina New Orleans that truly fuels Aaron Neville's eloquent new album "Bring It on Home ... The Soul Classics."
The Crescent City music great was in New York when the disaster struck last year. Due to doctor's orders concerning his asthma and his wife's cancer, Neville settled in Nashville and has no plans to revisit his demolished home or tour the destroyed households of two siblings and three of his children.
But despite his conspicuous absence, the 65-year-old New Orleans native is with his hometown in spirit. He has been a part of numerous benefit concerts and "Bring It on Home" is dedicated to everyone "whose lives were forever changed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina." The album features Neville channeling his pain through a collection of songs that have comforted the singer for nearly a half of century. The 12 tracks include timeless favorites like "Rainy Night in Georgia," "People Get Ready" and "My Girl" delivered with sensitivity, grace and aplomb.
Other performers may have struggled making such well-known R&B numbers their own. But not Neville. He has no problem personalizing these gems with his expressive, distinct tenor.
"With everything that went on in the last year, making this record was a blessing," Neville said in a recent phone interview. "I laughed and I cried. Each song brought me back to New Orleans. I never know if my New Orleans will ever be back. But I remember exactly where I was in New Orleans when I first heard all these songs."
Neville's voice is a whisper coming through the phone. Just hearing the man speak is a privilege. The same refined passion that imbues his music enchants his speech.
"All these songs could be brand new today. They're not really old, they're not dated. They could be for any time. I can sit down with my granddaughter and play these songs."
Neville will perform the songs from "Bring It on Home" -- and other selections such as "What's Going On" and "Drown in My Own Tears" that didn't make the album's final cut -- on his tour.
On "Bring it On Home," the arrangements on most of the songs are familiar. The beauty of the record is in Neville's readings. There is never any doubt that each selection has a special place in the singer's heart.
Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" enjoys extra bounce courtesy of a fat bass line, but it's the vocal that amounts to sheer, soothing bliss.
"I toured with Otis Redding in 1967 and got to hang out with Curtis Mayfield," said Neville, who scored a No. 1 R&B hit in 1967 with "Tell It Like It Is." In the liner notes to "Bring It on Home," Neville recalls visiting Mayfield in ill health.
"I sat by his side and sang him his own songs, songs I've recorded here. Man, that was an emotional moment. This record is full of emotional moments like that."
Neville's rendition of Mayfield's "People Get Ready" is a message of hope for a population that was abandoned in the wake of the storm. Aaron is joined on the recording by his brother, Art, who offers church-service organ runs. David Sanborn contributed to the track with a soulful saxophone solo.
"Where is the cavalry, where is the cavalry?" is what Neville recalls thinking as he watched television broadcasts of his neighbors begging to be saved from their rooftops. "It was so hurtful I can't even explain."
Another highlight of "Bring It on Home" is when Neville transforms "Stand By Me" from a secular love song into a hymn of the highest order. "No, I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand by me," he declares with the upmost sincerity. It could be his wife, God or his beloved Saint Jude that the singer is addressing. Most likely, it's all three. A rich keyboard part pours through the speakers and a song we have all heard a hundred times takes on a new spiritual meaning as Neville pleads: "Please, please, stand by me, if ever I am in trouble."
But in terms of emotional impact, there is nothing in recent memory that hits with such force as Neville's album-closing rendition of Sam Cooke's seminal Civil Rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come." It's the sound of an angel crying. Every precious line comes alive like a thousand memories rushing forward all at once.
"I remember everything by Sam Cooke and it's spiritual stuff that has always been in my soul," Neville said. "I used to lay down on the floor and listen to Sam and go lick for lick with him."
That floor where Neville mimicked his heroes stood in the Ninth Ward that bore the brunt of the flood waters after the levees broke.
"I have a memory of New Orleans and I'll probably just leave it like that and do what I can do," Neville said.
© 2006, Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.