Soul Singer/Political Activist Cyril Neville: Alive and Very Well!

In the past, my blues writings for Against the Current and the Webzine have tended to be obituaries. Here's a discussion of a great soul/blues singer, though, who's very much alive--Cyril Neville. This essay below is an expanded version of a CD review that appeared in the June 3, 2010 issue of the online Blues Blast magazine, which can be accessed at www.TheBluesBlast.com--GF

cover of The Essential Cyril Neville Cyril Neville
The Essential Cyril Neville
1994-2007

MC Records
11 tracks
Total time: 57:13

www.myspace.com/cyrilneville

Cyril Neville, youngest of New Orleans’ famed Neville Brothers musical family, stunned the blues world in 2009 with the release of his CD, Brand New Blues, on roots/blues MC Records, a solidly original and funky approach to the blues that borrowed felicitously from Cyril’s long stint as a leading New Orleans soul/R&B singer (for years he was lead singer for the famed New Orleans soul group, the Meters. His follow-up CD for MC Records, The Essential Cyril Neville 1994-2007, continues that same felicitously original, funky yet bluesy approach, with 11 varied tracks that are a rich jambalaya of New Orleans musical textures that range from traditional R&B styling à la Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino to rap. All but one of the tracks were previously recorded on Cyril Neville’s small-label solo releases, The Fire This Time (1995), New Orleans Cookin’ (2000), Soulo (2000), and the no longer available Healing Dance and Just for the Funk of It. The previously-unreleased track is the opening track here, a funked-up blues number in that musical style established on Brand New Blues, “The Blues Is Here To Stay,” with guest Taj Mahal. In addition to producing The Essential Cyril Neville, Cyril was also instrumental in selecting the tracks; the musical power and variety of the tracks here illustrate well that rich Louisiana gumbo of musical approaches all done well that is Cyril Neville’s music—thus making The Essential Cyril Neville a most appropriately-titled CD indeed.

In addition to being a masterful musical stylist and accomplished vocalist, Cyril Neville is also an African American left political and social justice activist, which is also integral to his music, giving much of it an insistent but unobtrusive left political message that only complements, not distract from, his musical artistry. Cyril Neville is an artist with much to say who says it well, both in needed political tocsins for our troubled times, and through compelling musical artistry that partakes substantively from both his New Orleans and African American heritages.

So, reviewing The Essential Cyril Neville means looking at both the style and at the content of the 11 music tracks featured. Further, looking at the content also means looking not only at the political message within, but also at the aptness and strength of the more traditional R&B content present, as well as noting the felicitous appropriation of both into the stylistic body of Cyril Neville’s music as a whole. Stated simply and directly, The Essential Cyril Neville is extraordinarily strong on all counts. This is just a very, very good CD that far transcends being any sort of “Greatest Hits” compendium—The Essential Cyril Neville stands on its own, and stands tall and muscular.

Now a look at the various musical styles present here, in order of the tracks themselves. Funked-up approaches to blues and rock grace the first two tracks, the above-mentioned “The Blues Is Here To Stay,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” This incorporation of funk elements into these two other genres not only gives the music a more contemporary feel, it also enhances them strikingly through the creative originality of the approach, complementing the blues roots of the first track in a refreshing way that also maintains fealty to those blues roots; with that same fealty to Hendrix’s original arrangement refreshingly complemented as well by the novel funk styling. The third track, Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” is introduced by Neville as a tribute to this great artist that’s “takin’ his music into the New Millennium.” It does so by rendering it as an impassioned blues-rock number with strong horns, a solid piano solo, and Neville’s own enthusiastic blues-shouting vocals.

Track 4, “Ayita,” another term for Haiti, celebrates the splendor of the Haitian setting and the struggle of the Haitian people for freedom and democracy through a bouncy, horn-driven Caribbean/Latin tune that takes from Haitian music itself as it came to New Orleans, while track 5, “New Orleans Cookin’,” is New Orleans 1950s-style R&B with double-entendre lyrics that compare his woman’s love and feminine attributes to the tasty zest of the Crescent City’s famous cuisine. Track 6, “Fortune Teller,” is a live version of the Benny Spellman song written by Allen Toussaint under the pseudonym Naomi Neville that’s done here as a long, slow soul ballad with Toussaint on piano, and is one of Cyril Neville’s finest vocal performances on the CD. Track 7, “Indians Got That Fire,” is a rollicking celebration of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes and their dancing displays during this festival that’s replete with the Black Seminole’s Big Chief Iron Horse giving forth with braggadocio chant.

Cyril “goes to church” on track 8, rendering Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” as a reverential hymn that insistently cries out for social justice; while track 8, “Projects,” is an affirmatively African American rap song that’s also a political tocsin calling for solidarity that says that it doesn’t matter where you grow up, i.e., the low-income housing projects, it matters what you do with it. These messages are repeated and emphasized again on the last track, “Funkalicious,” that combines both traditional and rap vocals in another political tocsin for self-empowerment through believing in oneself and not giving up. Sandwiched in-between is track 10, “Heart’s Desire,” a soul ballad duet with wife Gaynelle Neville that affirms finding love through going beneath the surface and seeing the real person buried under the social slight, dismissal and rejection.

Truly as varied a selection of tracks on a CD as one’s likely to find, especially on one that’s only 11 tracks long. Yet, as The Essential Cyril Neville so ably demonstrates, this is not simply a collection of songs, this is an album that flows well and hangs together well; thus making this a thematic CD without any apparent theme where all the tracks come together as well as the varied, even seemingly incongruous, ingredients of New Orleans jambalaya or gumbo come together—a delicious melding of diverse musical flavors.

Before moving on to a discussion of content, a few more words need to be said about the positive strengths of the musical arrangements, instrumentation, and Cyril Neville’s potent, expressive vocals themselves. On his vocals, even a cursory listen to The Essential Cyril Neville establishes him as one of the masterful stylists of soul and soul-blues, ranking him among the male greats such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Otis Clay, and distaff greats Aretha Franklin and Etta James. Neville’s songwriting mastery is on display here as well: except for “Foxy Lady,” “Tipitina,” “Fortune Teller” and “The Times They Are A Changin’” all the songs here are originals co-written by Cyril Neville himself, and all of them stand out creatively as much as the four obvious masterpieces covered do—but with all four covers not rendered as covers of the originals at all, but with each one imbued by the novel arrangements with their own masterfully unique artistic flair, so that they become Cyril Neville’s songs as well. In terms of these novel arrangements, one catches oneself unexpectedly asking, in surprised yet delighted amazement, “Who would’ve thought of doing ‘Foxy Lady’ as a funk number?” Or “Who would’ve thought of rendering ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ as a gospel hymn?” “Or rockin’up Professor Longhair?” “Or slowing down ‘Fortune Teller’?”

There’s ample creative horn work on the songs as well, solid horn work throughout, but horn work that fits especially nicely into the R&B/soul grooves of “Tipitina,” ”Funkalicious” ” and “New Orleans Cookin’,” with licks and solos that are straight-ahead adaptations of modern be-bop jazz in the first two, and traditional New Orleans Dixieland jazz in the last. Excellent musicianship and backing choral work throughout is provided not only by Neville’s staple band, but by many other musicians and special guests as well. The extended Neville family is actively involved, not only Cyril’s wife, as mentioned above, but also his brothers, son and nephew. George Sartin provides a frenetic, incendiary guitar solo on “Foxy Lady,” and “Tipitina” features another outstanding solo, a classic New Orleans blues piano one, possibly by George Rossi or maybe even by Cyril Neville himself, as he is listed in the credits as playing piano as well. As mentioned above, Allen Toussaint does the piano solo honors on his own creation, “Fortune Teller,” and at the end shouts out “Unbelievable!” in admiration of Cyril’s magnificently histrionic vocal ending. Other guests are the above-mentioned Taj Mahal on guitar and blues harp on “The Blues Is Here To Stay,” and the late Marva Wright with counterpoint soul-vocal shouting on “Tipitina.”

Same as on Brand New Blues, Cyril Neville draws on his personal political activism to inform the content of the songs he sings. But as a look at the above playlist of songs featured on the CD shows, not all songs on The Essential Cyril Neville are overtly political. Certainly “Foxy Lady,” “Tipitina,” “New Orleans Cookin’,” “Fortune Teller,” “Indians Got That Fire” and “Hearts Desire” aren’t. But I think they are political in that insidious way that B.B. King once noted of the blues when he said, “Blues seem to be about men and women. But if you listen, really listen, you know it’s about a lot more.” Drawing as they do from the African American musical tradition, and with all written or co-written by African American songwriters, their inclusion here just seems to say, “I’m Black and I’m proud!” Not in an attention-seeking, specially-entitled way, but in a most positively affirmative way, as in “I’ve been there, I’ve been through it all, and I’m still standing and fighting.”

Clearly, it seems to me, that is the message in the Black-affirming, but also simply human-affirming, everybody-affirming, “Projects” and “Funkalicious,” with their admonitions to live authentically yourself and join in solidarity with your brothers and sisters that recalls Alex Haley’s recounting of Malcolm X confronting a drunk in Harlem with “Why are you working for The Man?” But it also recalls Pete Seeger introducing “We Shall Overcome” at a Carnegie Hall concert during the height of the Civil Rights struggle nearly 50 years ago, when he called upon audience members to join with the young activists fighting segregation in the South: “Takes hearts and hands and minds to do it—human beings to do it.” Cyril Neville says as much in one of the lines from “Projects,” “We’ll be livin’ better tomorrow/By gettin’ together today.”

Of course, my own personal left politics incline me positively to this side of Cyril Neville, which not all blues critics like. So maybe they should listen very closely to “The Blues Is Here To Stay” with its thumbnail sketch of blues history from the Delta to Robert Cray; it’s understated pointing out that it was the blues that made Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beatles, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones possible; and its also-understatedly pointing out that the blues is not only (quoting from the song) “the gospel of the common man” generally, but also the particular music of the African American common man (and, of course, woman) that was created, developed and forged in struggle and oppression.

But that is the power of Cyril Neville’s expression through his music of his political activism: his positive, non-preaching, yet insistently-protesting, political message that’s directly linked to self-empowerment through consciousness and activism. In this way not only is he political, he’s political in an artistic, sensuous way that makes one listening to The Essential Cyril Neville worth more than attending a dozen (usually boring and stiff) political meetings. This coupling of sensuality with protest and activism certainly comes through on “Ayita,” which underscores the suffering of the Haitian people, but also celebrates their endurance and struggle, both of them through dialectical affirmation in a song of delight with the natural beauty of Haiti which is set to joyously felicitous, up-tempo Haitian-influenced music. Neville makes the same point again in “Funkalicious” where once again he couples pleasure with protest in the refrain, “Only the truth will set you free/So live your life funkaliciously.”

And needless to say, the point is only emphasized further by his treatment of what was a classic protest song already, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’.”

Last, and by no means least, we have Cyril Neville’s understanding and affirmation expressed in the words he wrote with Taj Mahal for “The Blues Is Here To Stay”: “The blues grew out of pain/But now it can heal.” To which this hard-suffering, white Anglo-Saxon blues writer with the broken plastic spoon in his mouth from birth can only add “Amen.”

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