By Mike Finkelstein
If you ask most people why they like a piece of music, they will more than likely bring up adjectives or comparisons to make their point. Perhaps they like the feel, the tone, the groove, or the sheer emotion of one song or another. Ultimately, recognized talent and appeal goes along with a strong body of work over a long period of time. It also speaks to being heard as and looked upon as exemplary.
All of this came quickly to mind during Aaron Neville’s performance at Disney Hall Tuesday night Neville has been a unique and tremendous recorded talent for nearly 50 years. There simply aren’t many/any singers who come across as he does. To look at him you wouldn’t expect him to have a high voice, much less such one as gorgeously inflected as his. But that’s why we’re told not to judge a book by its cover.
A study in contrasts, his appearance looks pretty hard at first glance, tattooed with a distinctive mole above his right eye and a cross on his left cheek, buffed up with bulging muscles, a gold St. Jude’s medallion hanging from his ear. Often, he holds the mic two-handed to his mouth. Though it doesn’t seem to jibe with the visual, he sings like an angel. But that’s just fine as it definitely draws an audience’s attention right in to his presence. And expressive singing has much to do with conveying a presence.
His voice is a beautifully lilting tenor, precise and subtle in the rarefied highest registers. Where most singers who can even get that high on the scale often lapse into melisma, Neville has such a subtle touch that he goes in and out of this range effortlessly and wouldn’t think of wasting a word by showing off. The control and richness that he commands in the mid registers isn’t lost a bit in the highest registers. Once he takes his voice that high he takes great care to deliver the fine strokes and the broad ones. It’s all about putting the song over with the gift he was given.
On Tuesday night, the Disney Hall was not filled to capacity, but those of us who showed up saw a journeyman at work. Some of Neville’s most recent works are deeply religious and for this reason the ambience of Disney Hall was useful as its cavernous, elegantly paneled architecture does evoke the feel and sound of a modern church. The stage was decorated from side to side with poinsettias and giant snowflakes hung from the ceiling. This was a Christmas show, after all.
At Disney the band provided two- and three- part backing harmonies for him to glide over as well as tight, punchy arrangements of each song. Joining the band this evening on sax was Neville’s brother Charles. The program drew from all parts of Neville’s enduring career. There was his classic power ballad, “Don’t Know Much,” (originally a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt), and covers of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” and the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool.” From his 2005 Christmas album, Christmas Prayer, he gave us “Little Town of Bethlehem, “ “Ave Maria,” “Merry Christmas Baby,” and “The First Noel.” Christmas songs often have a way of getting hokey pretty fast but his versions of these songs were different. They had a tone and feel much closer to gospel music and it was inspiring to hear him lock in the ubiquitous “Silent Night,” and take it to a beautiful level. He also has a new doo-wop album out, My True Story, produced by Keith Richards. It’s an album of doo-wop chestnuts that allows him to get happily back to some of his roots. You can certainly hear the doo-wop influence in his delivery. His sustained falsetto sounds perfect for doo-wop’s layered harmonic format and it figures because he cut his teeth learning to sing Clovers tunes as a kid coming up. From this side of his taste he served up “Cupid,” “This Magic Moment,” “Ting a Ling,” “Goodnight My Love,” and “Gypsy Woman,” to name just a few. T
Towards the end of the show he sang, “Tell It Like It Is,” the song that put his voice on the map in 1966. It’s a beautifully conceived 6/8 jaunt through the sensitivities in holding out for truth in romance. The words are calmly assertive and the tone of his voice has always given the song a persuasiveness that can only come from a heartfelt yet impeccable delivery. All of Tuesday night was just that.
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Photo courtesy of Aaron Neville.