“He’s Withstood the Test of Time.” Aaron Neville LIVE! at SOPAC

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

We’re with a sold-out crowd of music lovers in the lobby of NJ’s South Orange Performing Arts Center this Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, waiting for a live concert appearance by soul and R&B singer, Aaron Neville.

Aaron Neville was born in New Orleans. He began performing with his brothers in the early-1950s and by 1954, their group, The Hawkettes, had scored a regional hit in Louisiana with their song, “Mardi Gras Mambo.”

In 1967, Neville recorded a solo single on the Par-lo label, a company owned by a school friend. That song, “Tell It Like It Is,” reached #2 on the Billboard Charts, landing right behind “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees and earning Neville his first gold record.

1975 saw Neville reuniting with his siblings to form The Neville Brothers. Their 1989 album, Yellow Moon, brought the group’s R&B, soul, and funk sound to a national audience and earned the brothers their first Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

Also in 1989, Neville teamed up with Linda Ronstadt to record the triple platinum selling album, Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Continuing his solo work with a pop-friendly adult contemporary sound on albums like 1993’s The Grand Tour, Neville also explored other genres of music, singing spirituals on 2000’s Devotion, jazz on 2003’s Nature Boy: The Standards Album, R&B on 2006’s Bring it on Home… The Soul Classics, and doo wop on 2013’s My True Story.

Neville’s latest solo studio recording is Apache, a 2016 effort on which he wrote or co-wrote ten of the disc’s eleven tracks. Turning 75 when the album was released, Neville supported the project by presenting a live concert in NYC which was recorded and will be released in audio and video formats in 2019 as Aaron Neville’s 75th Birthday Celebration Live at the Brooklyn Bowl.

As we wait for the auditorium doors to open, we chat with a group of fans including Violet from Huntington, LI, who tells us, “We traveled from New York to see Aaron Neville here at SOPAC because he’s not playing anywhere in New York at this time. I’m a very big fan — I’ve followed him since the ‘60s — he’s upbeat and I love his voice. I’ve seen him a number of times and I can tell you that he’s especially beloved in New Orleans.”

Rusti from Lyndhurst agrees adding, “I’m a big fan. I was in the Army in New Orleans in the early ’90s and I saw him perform there with The Neville Brothers. He has a beautiful voice — when he sings ‘Ave Maria’ it’s like the angels singing.”

Rusti’s husband, John, comments, “I’m a fan of Aaron Neville because of my wife. This is our fourth time seeing him, but it will be our first time here at SOPAC,” adding, “I often check the internet to see where and when he’s playing, and we were really happy to see he was performing right here in our home state of New Jersey.”

Concludes Daniel, a long time Neville fan from Newark, “As long as I get to hear that voice tonight, I’m gonna be happy!”

We take our seats in the cozy and inviting SOPAC auditorium where the lights dim for tonight’s opening act, singer/songwriter, KJ Denhert — an artist who refers to her moniker by joking, “It sounds like ‘Cajun dinner,’ but it’s less filling.”

Welcoming the crowd — acknowledging, “I know you’re here to see Aaron Neville!” — Denhert provides background info on her first selection revealing, “I was miserable in college, but I made a great friend. Although her name was not Esmerelda, I wrote this song, ‘Esmerelda,’ about her.”

Strumming and picking her guitar on this engaging minor blues, Denhert impresses with her smooth, soulful voice, her ability to tell a story through song, and the vivid imagery of her lyrics.

After talking about growing up in the Bronx, Denhert performs a story song about junior high school entitled “We Were Diamonds.” Singing, “We were diamonds/They were rough/Girls were mean and boys were tough,” she effectively uses electronic effects to sing harmony with herself on this breezy folk rocker.

Another highlight of Denhert’s set is “Beautiful,” a song she wrote because, as she explains, “People argue when you say they look beautiful.” Sounding much like an undiscovered Joni Mitchell classic, Denhert impresses with her earnest vocals and open-tuned guitar work on this personal and intimate composition where she makes audience members feel as though she is singing individually to each one of them.

During intermission, Denhert comes out to the lobby to meet and greet fans who hug and take pictures with her. Comments Sue from South Orange about Denhert’s performance tonight, “The fact that I could understand every word she sang was wonderful — and I love her message!”

Back inside the SOPAC auditorium, the lights dim and pianist Michael Goods sets the mood for the rest of the evening’s festivities by taking a seat at the grand piano and playing jazzy chords under a soft spotlight. The sound skips and rolls throughout the theater as Aaron Neville enters the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After announcing, “Give it up for Michael Goods!” Neville takes a seat at the keyboard and opens his set with a medley of classic R&B tunes including Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” and Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and “Working on a Chain Gang.”

With his trademark soulful falsetto, Nevelle elicits avid applause from the sold-out SOPAC crowd.

Additional highlights of Neville’s set include a staccato rendition of The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” featuring his trademark vocal twists and turns during the song’s coda, and a bluesy boogie-woogie arrangement of Buddy Holly’s “Ting-A-Ling,” where audience members tap their feet and clap their hands to the soulful groove of Neville’s vocal and Goods’ piano.

Introducing his next song as a Nat King Cole number — a tune which won the Academy Award in 1950 for Best Original Song from a film — Neville acknowledges, “They used to let me in for free when I’d sing my way into the movies.” Playing the synthesizer, he performs a poignant rendition of “Mona Lisa,” and follows that up with unique takes on Cole’s “When I Fall in Love” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.”

Singing while holding his left hand over his ear, Neville performs an inspired solo version of his 1989 Top Ten hit with Linda Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much.” Crooning, “I don’t know much/But I know I love you/That may be all I need to know,” the audience cheers for Neville’s mastery of pitch, phrasing, and dynamics.
 
He follows up with a solo version of another duo recording with Ronstadt — “All My Life” — a performance which earned the pair a Grammy in 1991 for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The audience cheers, and Neville responds with an upbeat version of The Neville Brothers’ “Mojo Hannah.” Demonstrating his impressive vocal range, the audience can’t help but move to the groove of this funky voodoo number.

Other highlights of the evening include Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” on which Neville and Goods fill the SOPAC auditorium with their soulful artistry, and a funky version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” where the audience joyfully claps along on the infamous, “I know, I know, I know, I know” lyric.

After acknowledging, “That’s one of my favorite songs,” Goods moves to the synthesizer as Neville gives a thoughtful performance of Bobby Goldboro’s “Honey.” Singing, “See the tree how big it’s grown/But friend it hasn’t been too long,” Neville brings back memories of a time gone by for many in this SOPAC crowd on this classic ‘60s story song.

On an unplugged reggae version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the audience happily sings, “Don’t worry about a thing/‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right,” as Neville responds, “I hear you out there!” Then, he mimics playing the guitar on both the instrumental intro and interlude of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.”

His voice crying and pleading, Neville stops time on a heartfelt rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

He follows that up with a funky version of The Neville Brothers’ minor blues, “Yellow Moon.”

For his final selection of the evening, audience members “ooh” and “aah” for Neville as he and Goods perform Neville’s 1966 Top 10 hit, “Tell It Like It Is.

After announding to the crowd, “Have a great 2019!” the entire house rises to its feet for this talented singer who offers to sing a short set of encore numbers.

Launching into a rollicking rendition of “Down By the Riverside,” members of the audience sing and clap along. When Neville segues into a soulful version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” which includes the famous New Orleans Saints’ chant, “Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?” members of the audience stand and cheer!
 
Following up with The Spaniels’ “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight,” Neville sings both the “Goodnight, sweetheart/Well, it’s time to go” melody and the “Doo doo-doo doo doo” bass part.

Ending with a soulful and jazzy version of the famous TV theme from Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club, the audience happily joins in on the “Why? Because we love you!” lyric.

“Peace — I hope you enjoyed it!” announces Neville as he fist-bumps fans and waves to standing audience members before taking leave of the stage.

Upon making our way back to the lobby, we chat with several audience members who share their opinions of tonight’s concert with us.

States Kevin from South Orange, “Aaron Neville was just amazing!”

Leressa from South Orange agrees declaring, “He was great!” before joking, “You were there, weren’t you?”

Continuing, “He’s such a wonderful performer, and he covered such a wide range of material,” Leressa concludes by stating, “For baby boomers, it was like re-experiencing your life coming by you again.”

Comments Edwin from South Orange,“This concert was way too close and way too cheap!” explaining, “I would have paid $1000 for a ticket and I would have traveled further,” before adding, “I saw Aaron Neville 37 years ago in New Orleans, and he’s still got it!”

Edwin’s friend, Abbott, visiting from East Sussex, England, acknowledges, “Before tonight, I didn’t know who Aaron Neville was — but now I just want to buy his records. Call me a convert!”

Lastly, we chat with Mark and Stephanie from Milltown.

States Mark, “This concert was so great — it was amazing! I’m so glad my wife hipped me to Aaron Neville!”

Remarks Stephanie, “I’ve loved Aaron Neville for such a long time — the way he can play with a melody and tell a story is just amazing.”

Pointing out, “His voice is his instrument — and it is incredible; you never know where its is going to go next!” Stephanie concludes by affirming, “He’s withstood the test of time.”

To learn more about Aaron Neville, please go aaronneville.com. For information on upcoming performances at South Orange, NJ’s SOPAC — including Janeane Garafalo on February 15, Del McCoury and David Grisman on March 20, Los Lobos on March 30, and Roger McGuinn on April 11 — please click on sopacnow.org.