New Orleans native Aaron Neville took the House of Blues stage last night looking like every publicity still we've seen of him over the last few decades: Bulging muscles, fitted black shirt, fedora, jewelry, religious tattoos.
Last year, Neville (who celebrates his 71st birthday next month) released Gospel album I Know I've Been Changed, thus marking a significant milestone in his career -- his 50th year in recorded music. A musician cannot attain such an enduring and successful career unless he or she has perfected one particular art: The art of absolute entertaining, which Neville has clearly mastered.
Returning to the House of Blues for his annual holiday performance, Neville was joined by his "Quintet" band of guitarist, bassist, drummer, keys player, and saxaphonist. They opened with a four-song medley packed with crowd-pleasing punch, including "Stand By Me," "Cupid," "There Goes My Baby," and "Chain Gang."
Though last night's show was promoted as a holiday concert, only about a quarter of Neville's setlist was Christmas-themed. He sang a handful of esteemed songs of the '50s, '60s and '70s, including Bob Marley & the Wailers' "Stir It Up," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and The Drifters' "This Magic Moment," which received a collective "Aww!" from the crowd.
While Neville stuck to Christmas tunes and classic covers, he also sang his two most lauded covers as a solo artist, "Everybody Plays the Fool" and 1989 soft-rock staple "Don't Know Much" (originally recorded as a duet with Linda Ronstadt).
Christmas songs like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and a beautiful rendition of "Ave Maria" freshened up Neville's otherwise soulful set. At one point of the show, he read from his personal poetry book -- a book which he says holds poems he wrote while facing different hardships in life, including "the reality of the streets." He read us a rhyming poem he'd written about the struggles of the world's homeless -- a stark yet touching depiction, which received some audible heartfelt amens from the crowd.
The reading was a touching moment, but ill-timed; it was directly followed with a cheerful rendition of "White Christmas."
Neville took two lengthy breaks throughout his almost two-and-a-half hour set, during which his Quintet performed intricate jam sessions; the saxaphonist and guitarist were especially memorable, though his entire band played flawlessly. The breaks, however, stretched the set out about 30 minutes too long; by the last few songs, many had already trickled out of the venue -- but those who stayed swayed and smiled along to every last song.
When his drummer cheerfully initiated an encore cheer, Neville spared us the awkward obligatory request, laughing, "I was going to come back anyway!"
The crowd was surprisingly chatty through Neville's set, but that changed during his encore opener, a moving delivery of "Amazing Grace," his signature falsetto-tenor voice dancing along its soothing notes.
After nearly two and-a-half hours of serving up soul tunes and holiday cheer, Neville and his Quintet closed with -- what else? -- "Goodnight, Sweetheart."
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Personal Bias: Not my cup of tea -- or even my cup of spiked eggnog -- but Neville is a damn fine entertainer.
The Crowd: Lovebirds and baby-boomers, mink-wearing women, a couple of random young'uns, and many Christmas sweater-clad couples.
Overheard in the Crowd: "M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!" (Neville and his band led the crowd through the Mickey Mouse theme-song as they exited the stage.)
Random Notebook Dump: I head to bed tonight with "Don't Know Much" in my head... I wonder how many other attendees faced the same slumber situation.