Fifty-six years into his recording career, Aaron Neville is finding new ways to tell it like it is. “I call it ‘the other side of Aaron’,” says the singer, talking about his new album, Apache, “because people know me from doing the ballads and New Orleans stuff. Here, they’re getting another feel of Aaron.” While the record certainly touches on the mystic gumbo of the greatest Neville Brothers albums, and brings in the sheer sweetness of his most famous solo recordings, Apache diverges toward a third path we’ve never quite heard from him in the studio — one based in the hard-edged R&B of the pre-disco 1970s. You could make a case that it’s the funkiest album of his career, and there’s certainly no argument that it’s the most personal, since it marks the first time he’s co-written an entire album’s worth of material.
“Sonically, we knew we wanted to take it back to the soul/funk era,” says co-producer Eric Krasno (who’s produced and/or written for Ledisi, Matisyahu, Norah Jones, 50 Cent, Chaka Khan, and countless others). Krasno worked on the music with Dave Gutter, another well-known figure on the neo-soul scene. The lyrics, meanwhile, came straight out of a poetry journal Neville began keeping in the 1970s. Together, they’ve come up with a modern/revivalist
marvel that harks back to a golden age that produced socially conscious classics like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On (which Neville even name-checks in one of the tracks, “Fragile World”).
The Other Side of Aaron would have made a fine title, but the 75-year-old legend settled on Apache. If you think he chose it just to evoke an aura of fierce determination, it’s much more personal than that. Native American blood runs through Neville’s family, as it does through much of the African American communities in Louisiana. And “Apache Red” was one of Aaron’s nicknames growing up, because of the crimson hue to his skin after he’d spent too much time working in the New Orleans sun. He’s held onto the nickname with pride. “My license plate used to be ‘Apache’ on my car in New Orleans. I have it tattooed on my back.” And, just in case that isn’t bad-ass enough… “My little Shih Tzu Pomeranian’s name is Apache!” he adds. It was about time it also gave name to what has turned out to the most autobiographical album he’s ever made.
Completely eschewing cover tunes this time, Neville pays tribute to his early years in “Stompin’ Ground,” a veritable memoir in three and a half minutes, packed with a wealth of names and nicknames that even a seasoned Louisiana music buff might require a scorecard to keep up with, as it calls out everyone from his famous family members to his teenage buddy, Dr. John. “Fragile World” alludes to the hurricane that wrecked his home in New Orleans, along with a host of other natural disasters that Neville thinks are “the earth saying, ‘Man, you’ve been misusing me all these years, and I’m fighting back now. I’m pissed at you.’” His wife of five years, Sarah, inspired two songs on the new album, “Orchid in the Storm” and the utterly effervescent “Sarah Ann,” which Neville says “has a little more of that doo-wop feel to it, like the Drifters.” Meanwhile, if you ever thrilled to this avowed St. Jude admirer singing “Ave Maria,” you get a further taste of his deeply spiritual side in the transcendent “Heaven.”
Neville is determinedly a solo artist now, after the Neville Brothers played a farewell show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012, then did one last waltz in 2015 at a “Nevilles Forever” all-star jam and goodbye blast in New Orleans during Jazz Fest. He’s often put his own recording career on the back burner, although he started out as a solo artist with an obscure 45 he recorded with Allen Toussaint in 1960 and notched his biggest hit in ’66 with “Tell It Like It Is,” a No. 2 pop hit and No. 1 R&B smash. He was no one-hit wonder, but there was a very pregnant 23-year pause between that indelible single and the next time he entered the public eye in a big way. In 1989, he Neville Brothers — who’d been together as a group for about a decade at that point — released their breakout album, Yellow Moon. That was the same year Aaron’s solo career was revived in a big way with Linda Ronstadt featuring him as her duet partner on “Don’t Know Much,” a No. 2 pop smash.
In the quarter-century that followed, his first loyalty remained with the hard-touring band, but he finally saw the need to take some time off from touring and reimagine his solo career. Neville tours in two different formats now: One is with the Aaron Neville Quintet, which involves all the slinky ferocity fans have come to expect when they see one of music’s greatest vocalists fronting a full band. (And it includes at least a partial Neville Brothers reunion: Brother Charles is part of the fivesome.) The other is the more intimate shows he does with keyboard player Michael Goods, where you might hear him break into an obscure Nat King Cole tune that pops into his head. “I like the energy of the quintet,” he says, “and I also like the laid-back quality of the duo, just coming off the top of my head with things.”
Neville no longer lives in New Orleans, despite being thought of as the city’s foremost musical ambassador. He lived there with his late wife Joel until Hurricane Katrina, and still has a host of brothers, children, and grandchildren to visit. But he’s a New Yorker now — “from the Big Easy to the Big Apple,” as he puts it. He and Sarah have bought a farm upstate, and although he’s hardly lazy when it comes to touring, “now, I don’t have to be out there grinding as much,” he says. “I needed time off to be with family and just live, instead of giving it all to the road. That was a hard gig, with the brothers. There wasn’t nobody fighting or anything like that. But I’ve got a lot more I want to do in my life. As I say, I’ve got a long ways to go and a short time to make it in!”
Neville gave thanks for his blessings in a prayer of thanksgiving he posted to Instagram and other social media last January on the occasion of his 75th birthday, accompanied by a photo of the famously buff singer lifting weights in the gym, which led one website to lead with the headline, “Aaron Neville is 75… and Fine!” But those guns of his are only his second-most-famous attribute. The first is that voice, which no vocal workout in the world could produce.
He’s well aware of the blessing. “I’ve had people tell me different things, like this lady who told me they had a 5-year-old little boy who was autistic, and the only thing that would calm him down is if they put a headset on him with my voice. She gave me chills when she said that. All I could say is, it’s the God in me touching the God in him. I can’t take responsibility. I’m just a singer, you know. And I’m trying to make the tenderest notes that could heal, in some way. I used to say that I wish I could make a note so pure that it could cure cancer.” He may not have reached that medicinal level yet, but with a voice and spirit that are this much of a salve, “Apache Red” really is a one-man musical Red Cross.●
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