Friday, July 17, 2009

For a Song: Fire on the Bayou

The Neville Brothers: Fire on the Bayou


New Orleans is perhaps the most musically fertile city in the United States. This is the city that gave birth to Dixieland. There is a tradition of brass band music that is found nowhere else. Blues and jazz from here sounds different from anywhere else in the country. And New Orleans funk sounds- well, it sounds like the Neville Brothers. All of this music is informed by the sound of the Mardi Gras indians. The various “tribes” are social clubs that have been around for generations. Each has there own style of elaborate costume, worn only once a year for the Mardi Gras marching. They march to music whose defining characteristic is the “second line” beat. I can’t give you the technical explanation of what makes this rhythm unique; I only know that it sounds like New Orleans, no matter what musical style it turns up in.

The Neville brothers are Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril. All were active in music, in and out of New Orleans, from the 1950s onward. Most notably, Art became the frontman of the Meters. Take the unique rhythm of Professor Longhair’s Piano playing, and translate to a full band, and you have some idea of the Meters’ sound. Most of their songs were instrumentals, emphasizing the groove. But a notable exception was Fire on the Bayou. Oh, the groove is there alright, but there is also a joyous vocal.

In 1976, following the death of their mother, the four Neville boys worked on a project together for the first time. This was a collection of traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs where they backed some of the chiefs, including their uncle, George Landry aka Chief Joy. Members of the Meters were also part of this project. The resulting album, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, is a New Orleans classic. After this, The Neville Brothers stayed together as a group. Not long after, they recorded their version of Fire on the Bayou. It has become one of their signature tunes, for good reason.


Note to my regular readers: this week, we had to do some emergency maintenance on the computer. That is why there was no theme post this week. There will be an album review this weekend, followed by a special For a Song early next week. The theme post will appear late next week, and then normal posting will resume.