Aaron Neville

From the farm to the stage


What: Aaron Neville

When: 10 am Fri., Sep. 15 -16

Where: Skagit Valley Casino Resort, 5984 N. Darrk Ln., Bow

Cost: $55-$65


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

If someone asked me to guess what Aaron Neville was doing at any given moment—hey, it could happen—I’d feel like it would be a pretty safe bet to place him somewhere in New Orleans (obviously), possibly with one or more of his famous singing brothers, giving a concert or just hanging out being effortlessly cool in the city with which he and his music are so closely identified.

Never in any absurd number of years would I conjure up a picture in which Neville was communing with chickens and keeping bees and planting starts in his greenhouse in small-town New York. But that’s exactly what he’s doing these days with wife Sarah Friedman, dog Apache Jr., the aforementioned chickens and bees, and all the other animals, implements and elements that make up life on the farm.

It’s just the latest, must bucolic, chapter in an existence that has been marked by both professional success and personal hardship. At 76 years old, and in the unlikeliest of locales, Neville seems to have found the peace that has been both hard-won and a long time in coming.

For the R&B crooner with a voice considered to be one of music’s greatest, tragedy and triumph have always been closely related, an iron fist in a velvet glove. He grew up harmonizing on New Orleans street corners with his musical brothers, where they’d sing their way into movies for free, but it was those same streets that introduced him to the drugs and petty crime that plagued many of his younger years.

He was just a teenager when he met and married his first love, Joel, who would come to hear him sing, a harbinger of the millions of people who would eventually be drawn to his angelic voice. And he was still in his teens the first time he went to jail, a place he was in and out of, for stealing cars, carrying knives and generally raising more hell than was either practical or prudent.

Through it all, he never stopped singing, never stopped trying to make something of himself. And while New Orleans has long been home to seemingly infinite numbers of incredible musicians, not one of them could boast what Neville had: that distinctive, indelible voice.

The entire country fell in love with that voice in 1966, with the release of Neville’s chart-topping hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” which perfectly melded his expressive vocal style and doo-wop influences with the plaintive wish of a man who just wants to know where he stands. It was a winning formula, and the song hit the top spot on the Billboard R&B chart and peaked at number two on the Hot 100.

Neville had a bona fide hit under his belt, but behind the scenes, life remained rough. As was the case for many artists of the era, the singer’s career was mismanaged, and he saw very little financial gain from his hit song. And the more he achieved professionally, solo and as part of the Neville Brothers, the further he descended into addiction. At one especially low point, Joel, having had her fill of her husband’s demons, packed up their four children and moved to be close to her mother.

As before, he continued to sing, while somehow keeping his marriage intact, and as the 1980s dawned—a time during which many musicians abused enormous amounts of drugs in earnest—Neville got sober.

Good thing, because the biggest success of his musical life was just around the corner.

Neville had been clean for nearly a decade and his legendary voice had never been in finer form when Linda Ronstadt—herself possessing of a sterling set of pipes that were directly responsible for her status the top female pop star of the 1970s—tapped him to record a handful of duets for her upcoming album. It was one legendary voice meeting and melding with another, and it seemed to be a collaboration the world didn’t know it wanted and couldn’t get enough of.

The album, Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, spawned the chart-topping single “Don’t Know Much,” a radio staple immediately upon its release in 1989 before it was usurped by their next duet, “All My Life.” Both songs won Grammys, reestablishing Ronstadt as the reigning queen of the Billboard Hot 100 and making Neville a household name.

For a long time, things were good for Neville, Joel and their family. Having survived so much and come out stronger, the long-married couple was inseparable. Neville and his brothers had woven themselves into the rich tapestry that is the musical tradition of New Orleans. Life was going well, and Neville was finally in a position to enjoy it fully.

But tragedy struck again. And then again. And it took much of what Neville had worked so hard for and held so dear.

First, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, destroying not only his beloved city, but also Neville’s own home. He lost everything. His family moved to Nashville, and not long after, Joel, a cancer survivor, saw the disease return. She passed away, and when Neville returned to New Orleans for the first time since the hurricane, it was to bury his wife on what would’ve been their 48th wedding anniversary.

Neville has been frank about the darkness of that period of his life. About how losing the woman he’d loved since they were both teenagers nearly broke him. And then he met Friedman, who encouraged him to talk about Joel, and gently pulled him out of his grief.

The two married and moved to New York City, and the fresh start in Neville’s life spawned the same for his music. He found new management and a new record label and new artistic direction.

Which brings us almost back to where we started. To the farm.

The farm is really Friedman’s enterprise, and they started it as her second career after a professional life spent as a photographer. And when he wasn’t helping her tend chickens and till soil, Neville was doing something he’d never done before in all his long, varied musical life: recording an album comprised solely of his own original songs. During the course of his career, Neville had penned a song here and there, but his claim to fame had always been the way in which he used his unique voice to interpret the songs of others. But with 2016’s Apache, Neville finally used his voice to sing his own words.

When Neville plays two shows—Fri. and Sat., Sept. 15-16—at the Skagit Valley Casino Resort, he’ll no doubt pull from his entire vast catalog of R&B, gospel and pop songs. The set list will reflect all the many chapters that have made up his musical history. But while his geography and circumstances may change, the pull of Neville’s angelic voice remains the same.

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