The Legendary Aaron Neville Kicks off the 2016-2017 Duke Performances Series

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Aaron Neville performs at the Baldwin Auditorium at Duke on Friday

The tender poignancy of Aaron Neville’s gilded voice is as recognizable now as it was in 1966 when he shared “Tell It Like It Is” with the world. After decades of writing, performing, and partnering with some of the greatest musicians in the world, Neville, now 75, recently released “Apache,” his latest album.Returning to his roots that run as deep as Lake Pontchartrain, the New Orleans native includes an amazing group of players on this latest offering such as David Guy of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Eric Bloom of Lettuce and Blue Oyster Cult.The funk, soul, jazz, and outright rock on “Apache” is that of the mystique of New Orleans and its rich musical tradition. “It was a labor of love,” said Neville. Almost anyone of a certain age can easily recognize Neville’s distinctive, angelic pitch and delicate delivery of notes high and low as well his soulful outcry of emotion. Beginning in 1966 with his first number one hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” his vocal range and craft have found him defying labels and placing himself in whichever genre the work calls him. In 1989 he and Linda Ronstadt reached the top of the charts and earned a Grammy for “Don’t Know Much,” in the adult contemporary category. Just one year earlier he recorded “Uptown” with the legendary jazz saxophonist, Branford Marsalis, and rock ‘n’ roll icons, Keith Richards and Carlos Santana. Around the same time, Neville recorded the critically acclaimed, “Yellow Moon,” with his brothers Cyril, Art, and Charles joined by musical giants in sonic architecture, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Aaron Neville falls under no label, and when asked if he is comfortable with the moniker given to him by some journalists of, “the human oboe,” he laughed and said “I’ll take it.” Friday night’s intimate performance was not about “Apache,” his 75th birthday, or Aaron Neville’s greatest hits, but more of a lesson for the audience on Neville’s education in music—what made him Aaron Neville, inside and out. The show began with an extended overture of his many contributions to music played masterfully on a grand piano by longtime collaborator Michael Goods, who throughout the evening entranced the sold out audience with his accompaniment. Only his piano styling’s and Aaron Neville’s angelic voice commanded the opening with a rousing rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” leading naturally into a medley of unforgettable Sam Cooke classics. The evening at the beautiful Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s Campus was played to a sold out crowd of 625, ultimately revealed an expose’ of Neville’s musical upbringing.The four-time Grammy Award winner seemed to stress the importance of the work of Sam Cook, Bill Withers, The Drifters, Roberta Flack and many others, far more than his own. Cleverly and sweetly between songs like, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the Drifters “This Magic Moment,” Neville commented on his place in time while these great songs entered his life. The unforgettable performance came to a close as Neville and Goods gave the audience the truest of musical tradition with “Down By The River Side,” and the New Orleans processional, “When The Saints Go Marching In.” In the presence of greatness, the audience cheered and clapped along as Neville belted out a rousing showcase of his vocal range in “Tell It Like It Is,” “Good Night Sweetheart,” followed by a humorous, heartfelt rendition of “The Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater.” Why? Because we love you! Neville speaks of the city of New Orleans with a deep and profound adoration, indicating that the Crescent City, “raised all of us…musicians as brothers and sisters.” In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s crushing devastation to New Orleans displaced many. Neville not only faced the hurricane, but also the emotional roller-coaster of watching his wife, Joel, battle lung cancer. When Neville speaks of the storm coupled with the looming loss of his wife of 48 years, its impact on him is evident. After Katrina many New Orleans musicians came together to help their city, Neville being one of them. At NBC’s Concert for Relief in 2005 he performed an unforgettable rendition of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” a tale of the great flood of 1927 and it’s staggering devastation to the area. Thankfully the city, along with Neville have been restored. He found love again in his wife Sarah, who inspired the song “Wild Orchid” on “Apache.” He speaks proudly of his son, Ivan and nephew Ian, who carry on the Neville family tradition of making music with their funk jazz soul combo, Dumpstaphunk.Now 75 and celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Tell It like It Is,” Aaron Neville, gentle, humble and kind, talked to me like a friend. His soul is in the right place and his voice declares it.