Aaron Neville brought only one sibling -- saxophonist Charles -- with him to the Birchmere on Thursday. For most of the night he stayed away from the New Orleans funk that his regular meal ticket, the Neville Brothers, is known for. Good as it surely is, that group's music sometimes mitigates the power of the family's greatest natural resource: Aaron's voice.
Wearing a cutoff T-shirt that exposed huge biceps, Neville, at 62, looks a lot like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, only bigger and wider than the linebacker. Over his 2 1/2-hour set, Neville showed there's no musical style he's afraid to tackle. He crooned country classics ("I Saw the Light" and George Jones's "The Grand Tour") and old-school rhythm and blues ("Stand by Me," "Cupid" and "Everybody Plays the Fool"). Neville's "Ave Maria" was opera for the hoi polloi. He treated gospel standards ("Down by the Riverside") and pop gospel ("Steer Me Right") with equal reverence, and oozed sincerity whether delivering syrupy ballads ("Don't Know Much") or love songs for the ages (Van Morrison's "Crazy Love"). With an assist from Charles's horn, Aaron rendered an up-tempo version of the standard "Summertime," as Morrison might. He doo-wopped during the Spaniels' 1954 smash, "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." He delivered decades-old pro-peace songs (Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and "If I Had a Hammer") and commented on their sadly renewed relevance.
Neville's performance of "Tell It Like It Is," a solo hit for him in 1967, long before the Neville Brothers were formed, left the sold-out crowd in awe. It also reminded the audience that he's a pioneer of the sort of vocal gymnastics that so many younger R&B chanteuses -- the Mariah Careys and Christina Aguileras -- live on. But when Neville did triple somersaults around the melody line, listeners didn't get the sense he was just showing off his pipes. They were too busy swooning.
-- Dave McKenna