Dr. John and The Neville Brothers
August 25, 2009
Mardi Gras came to the Philadelphia suburbs when Dr. John and The Neville Brothers took over the stage at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pennsylvania. The Keswick is an acoustically perfect, fully restored, 1350 seat music venue built in 1928. It is a beautiful building with literally "no bad seats" and filled with original art deco touches. Yet it has a fully modern sound and light system perfect for the night's entertainment. The near-capacity crowd grooved to classic New Orleans tunes made famous by these two revered Crescent City groups.
Dr. John, whose real name is Mac Rebennack, was dressed in a burnt-orange zoot suit when he took the stage with his group, The Lower 911. He started the night with some funky organ playing, on "Keep That Music Simple," that immediately had the audience ready for his unmistakable sound. He moved into Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," literally showing that he can still swing at the age of 68 when he stood up and began dancing with the crowd cheering him on, and the band humorously encouraging him to sit and play. Throughout, the band seemed as if they were the engine driving the music forward as they pushed Rebennack's signature voodoo-trance sound, creating an irresistible dance atmosphere.
Rebennack is a master of the New Orleans rolling piano style on the order of Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint, as he displayed on several tunes on this night. His gospel version of Leadbelly's "Good Night Irene" he led to thunderous applause. He then went into an unexpected bossa version of the New Orleans classic "St. James Infirmary," giving new life to this old chestnut. And, of course, he had the crowd standing and dancing for his hit "Right Place, Wrong Time."
Dr. John is a multi-talented instrumentalist who played organ, piano, and guitar on this night. When the crowd demanded an encore, he returned to the stage with his guitar for a rollicking version of "Let the Good Times Roll." After almost fifty years in the business, Rebennack showed that he can still hold an audience, and his voice was as fresh and unmistakable as ever.
The Neville Brothers then took the stage to show their fans what New Orleans funk is all about. Backed by drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard, the four brothers were energetic, playing off each other as they have for over thirty years. With Charles on saxophone, Cyril on percussion, Art on the Hammond B-3 organ, and the unmistakable golden voice of Aaron Neville, the brothers had the crowd at the Keswick in their hands as they shifted from their trademark New Orleans funk to showcasing Aaron's voice, to instrumental pieces that had those in the audience captivated by the quality of their musicianship.
Starting off with Professor Longhair's "Tippitna," Art had the Hammond B-3 cranking out this old Mardi Gras-type tune with Cyril maintaining and moving the beat on snare and various hand drums. Funk had entered the building as they continued with the Nevilleized version of "Fever" with the unmistakable voice of Aaron, who was featured crooning on other tunes such as "Change is Gonna Come" and, of course, his hit song "Tell It Like It Is." On the latter tune, couples could be seen taking to the aisles and dancing to Aaron's singing this sad love song livea special moment for many of them indeed. Aaron's falsetto voice is smooth, and as a large muscular man, he can pull off this type of singing like no other. He plays his voice like an instrument and is able to capture the subtleties of the song vocally like an expertly played trumpet or saxophone.
One unexpected pleasure of the evening was when the band featured the saxophone playing of Charles, who performed several pieces that were very un-Neville Brothers in character and more reminiscent of Gato Barbieri or David Sanborn. Charles is indeed a fine saxophonist who deserves a closer look as a formidable jazz musician. The band used these interludes to slow the pace and show off his talent, as on a beautiful version of "Besame Mucho" that seemed to leave the audience awestruck.
The brothers sang a medley of favorite New Orleans tunes that included "Iko Iko," "Brother John is Gone," and "Fiyo on the Bayou"a combination that had the old Keswick bursting at the seams with energy and enthusiasm. The set ended with a high-energy tune featuring Charles on saxophone trading licks with guitar in a stunning display of speed and musicianship on this brass instrument. The encore was simple and beautiful when Aaron and the pianist returned to the stage and sent everyone home with goose bumps as he sang his version of "Amazing Grace."
The cheers this night were loud, wild, and well-deserved for both Dr. John and The Neville Brothers. These bands are two New Orleans favorites, playing on this night on the road for those outside the city to enjoy. For many years at the New Orleans Jazz Festival they drew huge crowds, with the Nevilles closing the festival. It is a testament to their music that they can still draw and hold an audience with musicianship that hasn't lost a step. All of these musicians are in their 60s now, yet they play with the same youthful enthusiasm they have exhibited for half a century. And they, as was apparent by observing the audience at the Keswick, they are loved by young and old alike. We can only hope that they continue to tour so they can bring their infectious rhythms and joyful sounds to those who have the great fortune to hear them.