Ivan Neville & Friends
As a standard bearer for the musical culture of New Orleans, Ivan Neville takes his anointing as seriously as the swamp water that courses through his veins. From the ferocious funk he makes with his bandmates in the dynamic Dumpstaphunk to his high profile gigs with Keith Richards and Bonnie Raitt, he embodies the irrepressible spirit of New Orleans.
Touch My Soul--Ivan’s first solo album in almost 20 years--is tough-minded but also tender, filled with joy, beauty and pain. It exudes an unmistakable New Orleans ambience and breathes new life into his singular sound. It’s both a love letter to the Crescent City and a celebration of his emotional and spiritual journey as an artist, a father and a man.
“I haven’t written any new material for myself in a long time,” Ivan explains, “so this project is very special to me. I made it up as I went along, a song here and there, in between my work with Dumpsta and my work with good musical friends.”
Ivan Neville holds the keys to the Crescent City at his fingertips. He can summon the barrelhouse mambo of Professor Longhair and the spidery intricacies of James Booker. He can play spooky, atmospheric chords like Dr. John. He can riff like Sly Stone with catchy, melodic chord progressions. Or he can throw intense, impulsive jabs when he
jams with his brothers in Dumpstaphunk.
“Music is a way to make people feel better, it brings spiritual healing,” he says. “I take
my job very seriously.”
Consider that Ivan’s blood line runs through two of the most influential groups that New
Orleans has produced, and that he has played with them both.
His uncle Art Neville was the vocalist and keyboardist with the Meters, who epitomized
New Orleans funk and are among modern music’s most sampled groups.
Art also founded the Neville Brothers with Ivan’s uncles Charles and Cyril, and his father, the great balladeer and stylist Aaron Neville. The Nevilles’ musical range not only spanned generations but also idioms like carnival rhythms, pop, soul, R&B and jazz; their collective identity galvanized Black New Orleans's cultural life to create a musical identity that focused their individual gifts with grace and grit.
Ivan is even more humble about his stature at the highest echelon of modern music. He has performed and recorded with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Robbie Robertson, Ani DeFranco and the Spin Doctors, among many others. He’s a charter member of Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos. He’s a founding member of the New Orleans Social Club and the group Neville Jacobs, in partnership with the songwriter Cris Jacobs.
And he plays a vital role in preserving New Orleans’s musical culture. When Dumpstaphunk joined Trombone Shorty’s national Threauxdown Tour last year, he saw how audiences were affected by the otherworldly magic of a sound that could only come from New Orleans.
“I saw my own place in the conversation about our musical and cultural heritage and history,” he says. “And, I got to see my role in the evolution of the music of New Orleans. The crowds may not have seen the Neville Brothers back in the day, most of the audiences were too young for that. But spiritually speaking, these were the Brothers’ children and that makes me appreciate what Dumpsta does even more. You become an elder, a teacher, by example.
“It’s a beautiful realization,” he adds, “knowing that this is something I’ve earned.”
The writing of Touch My Soul began with another epiphany. “When I was growing up,” Ivan says, “people interacted differently on the street. They acknowledged each other. There was a feeling of connection. Just a nod or a look that said, ‘Where y’at?’”
“Hey (All Together)” brings that feeling back, with vocal contributions from Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Big Aaron and David Shaw of the Revivalists, and instrumental sparks from Troy Andrews on trombone and violinist Theresa Anderson.
“I wanted familiar voices to bring back a feeling of community,” Ivan explains. “I
figured, if everyone said hello to a stranger, spontaneously but within reason, it might
make the world a better place. It certainly can’t hurt.”
That sense of community-mindedness extends throughout an album that’s alive with the pulse of the Crescent City. The album’s first single, “Greatest Place On Earth” is an authentic slice of street corner soul, a deliriously Mardi Gras-styled salute packed with incisive rhythms, booting horn parts and vocal fireworks.
Walking, stepping down the street y’all
Talking, never know who you’re gonna meet
Dancing, the groove feels so good to me
Singing, yes indeed
Soulful living is all we know how to do
In the greatest place on earth
Ivan constructed Touch My Soul around piano pieces that he composed in the pictured filled “sun room” in his house in Uptown New Orleans. “The drum loops were inspired by the sounds I heard on Sly Stone’s Fresh album,” he says, “which was a big influence on me as a teen.”
The vocals on his previous albums--If My Ancestors Could See Me Now (1988), Thanks (1994) and Saturday Morning Music (2002) which was repackaged in 2004 as Scrape--have always been tart and sweet. But his voice comes from a more evolved different spiritual place on Touch My Soul.
“People try to warn us about the risks in life, but we want to learn for ourselves,” he says. “And we have a choice whether we want to learn from our mistakes. I believe the more we embrace our vulnerabilities, our imperfections, our insecurities, the better we become. That’s my goal: stay teachable.”
Two songs in particular speak directly to Ivan’s search for the touchstones that guide him today: the meaning of acceptance and surrender as a path to achieving peace of mind--and both sound like cinematic classics. “Blessed,” whose undulating guitar recalls the Isley Brothers’ scintillating mid-80s sound, reflects what it means to feel the presence of a universal sprit. And “Touch My Soul,” with its exquisite string arrangement, comes from “a new understanding of what it means to love, and be loved.”
“These particular songs represent the power of personal freedom, ” Ivan notes. “The freedom to imagine, to express yourself, to create. I never say the words ‘blessed’ in the song, but I hope you can feel my gratitude because I reflect on my blessings every day.”
He extolls that ethos on “Pass It All Around,” which he composed with Cris Jacobs.
Keep learning and love along the way
Keep giving when you get another day
Keep trying when you’re feeling down
Keep loving and pass it all around
Other highlights include the ferociously funky “Stand For Something,” which featuring crushing contributions from Dumpsta’s guitarist Ian Neville, bass players Tony Hall and Nick Daniels III and drummer Devin Trusclair.
The album’s lone cover, a hypnotizing version of the Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody),”fits like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s taken me years to understand that it’s all about the journey, it’s not about the finish line,” Ivan says. “Everything serve s a purpose. We just have to pay attention. So I look for blessings everywhere.”
Ivan lives on a street named for a Spanish colonial governor, in a neighborhood with colonial architecture and verdant foliage. On a crystalline day in the Crescent City, he’s making a pot of his beloved gumbo, strutting around the kitchen with the swagger he brings to the bandstand.
The ingredients--onion, bell pepper, garlic, celery, three different kinds of sausage, six chicken thighs and three chicken breasts, lump crabmeat and shrimp--start to simmer and cackle in a well-worn pot. Aromatic, robust flavors waft through the kitchen as Ivan talks about the generous spirit of his late mother and greatest champion, the Joel Roux
“Nutty, smoky, with a little bit of a kick,” he says, smiling softly and blowing on a spoonful. He’s reminded of what his Uncle Art said of his cooking: “Tastes like them old people.”
Touch My Soul is not unlike a good bowl of chicken soup, he says, “very soothing for the soul.” Which is what Ivan strives to bring to the world as an artist and a fellow traveler.
“It’s the little moments along the way that I’m appreciating most. The joys of accomplishment and satisfaction. The sadness and the turmoil. How failures lead to triumphs.
“Acceptance is definitely a major theme on the record. I’m always learning how much I don’t know, which opens me up to learning more.
“When I think about the way music has touched my soul and all the songs that became special moments in my life, I become very emotional. Music should touch your soul. I hope this record and this music touches someone’s soul.”