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New Orleans gives us musical gumbo

New Orleans gives us musical gumbo — The Neville Brothers describe how culture clashing has made for their unique sound

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You can call Chicago a blues town and Seattle a headbanging town, but trying to find a simple way to describe New Orleans music is like trying to eat a plate of boiled crawfish politely with a knife and fork — impossible. ”When you talk about America being a melting pot, New Orleans epitomizes what America is all about,” says Jim Green, owner of the Big Easy’s eminently hip night spot Tipitina’s. ”Every nationality in the world lives here, and for some reason — maybe the atmosphere — whatever that nationality is, everything in it comes right out.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Neville Brothers, who have performed for Green ”about a hundred times” since he took over Tip’s in 1986, have come to symbolize what New Orleans music is all about. ”How do you define the Nevilles?” says Green. ”They’re part reggae, part Caribbean, part soul, part rock, part gospel — part everything.”

”New Orleans music is like a gumbo,” notes Aaron Neville, who adds several more ingredients to Green’s crowded recipe. ”We used to listen to people like [piano legend] Professor Longhair, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funeral bands — all that stuff. And it’s all from right here in New Orleans.” But the uncompromising pride with which the Nevilles wear their collective influences isn’t the only reason they’re such revered figures in the roots-steeped New Orleans music scene. It’s also their energy level, says Green — and their dignity. ”The most amazing thing about them is that three of the four brothers are over 50, but every time they play they act like they’re 20-year-olds and it’s the first time they’ve ever been on stage. These guys come in, they’re supposed to play a 75-minute set, and they jam for two hours. And every time they’re here, all four of them make it a point to find me and my wife and thank us for having them. Can you imagine that — in this business?”