Since their debut in 1977 at New Orleans club Tipitina’s, the Neville Brothers have been known as one of the best live bands in the country. For years, they shared a booking agent with the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Booker T & the MG’s and other legendary live acts. And their stage supremacy isn’t slowing down, with dates booked at North American venues and festivals throughout the summer.
Tipitina’s talent buyer Bill Taylor calls them “one of the greatest live bands of all time. That’s not an exaggeration. Those guys grew up jamming. They used to play… these all-night shows that were just big jam sessions.”
In addition to growing up in New Orleans, a city that boasts some of the world’s best live musical acts, one of the biggest contributors to the Nevilles’ onstage magic is their deep spiritual connection with the music. When asked how he gets motivated to put on such legendary performances even on bad days, Aaron Neville responds, “I don’t have no bad days. If I can wake up in the morning and walk to the bathroom, it’s a good day. The music is just the icing on the cake.”
Scott Aiges, director of programs for the foundation that presents the New Orleans Jazz Fest, where the Nevilles will perform May 4, credits the group’s live show as a big part of why he moved to the city in 1988. He was interviewing for a job at the Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ local paper. He recalls, “They brought me down for an interview, and I arranged for it to be on a Monday so that my wife and I could come in the previous Friday and explore New Orleans for the first time.
“That Saturday night, as luck would have it, the Neville Brothers were at Tipitina’s,” he continues. “We not only went, but we spent the whole show at the front of the stage. We were totally blown away. Luckily for me, I was offered the job, and took it in a heartbeat. Anything to get another taste of that magic.”
Cyril Neville looks upon those years as a staple act at Tipitina’s as one of the things that was most instrumental in finding their footing as performers. He says, “We’ve always said that there was five Neville Brothers. There’s four Neville Brothers, and then the audience. That’s the way it was when we played at Tipitina’s.”
While they all refer to Tipitina’s and the House of Blues as the best places to play in New Orleans, it’s Jazz Fest that keeps them coming back year after year. “Oh,” Art Neville says, cranking back in his memory through the cracking of his voice. “The Jazz Fest is so special, especially after 30 years.”
Regardless of where they’re playing, though, spirituality is something that drives all four brothers. Onstage, in the throes of a heavy groove along the lines of “Big Chief,” Charles Neville cranks up his left shoulder and just oozes through the saxophone, while Aaron appears to be channeling his talent from above. Cyril and Art hold down the funk, as they all swap glances and bounce around the groove.
The brothers don’t like to explain what happens onstage. What matters is that they’re able to let go and just be there for the audience.
Charles says, “The music has a spiritual element to it that is always communicated to the audience almost immediately. That’s what gets them going. We don’t go in with something rehearsed like we’re putting on a show. This is our lives, this is what we do, this is who we are. When we play music, it’s just an expression of what’s in our spirit and what’s in our heart. It’s… truth.”
Billboard asked the Neville Brothers and their colleagues to pick their favorite Neville Brothers song and what makes it special. Click here to check out their responses.