Saturday, February 12, 2011

1987: The Neville Brothers/Chris Cain

Add another 24 years to the road schedule of Chris Cain, who's still at it; seems to be based in the East Bay these days. And the Neville Brothers, an American treasure for more than a half century, are still the 600 pound gorilla of New Orleans music. Catch them at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this May.

Fourteen years of low-paying club dates and blues festivals are finally starting to pay off for the Chris Cain Band. Guitarist Cain, who's spent seven of those years with the current lineup, just turned down a vacancy in Roomful of Blues. He is occasionally recognized on the street in Europe, humbly turning over spare guitar picks and autographs to blues devotees. The band released their first album, Late Night City Blues, in April on the Blue Rock-it label. And at home in Santa Cruz, they continue plugging away, opening for the Neville Brothers last week at the Catalyst, and headlining another Dollar Night tonight.

Last Monday's show demonstrated how well these players have grown on each other, and how hungry they still are. Ron Torbenson started it out with a jovial bassline; the others pounced on it a few bars later when Robert Higgins' impeccable drumming kicked in. Lizz Fischer's keyboards and Noel Catura's saxes give the unit a nice fat sound, and Cain just sails through one joyful solo after another, his head thrown back and ticking like a metronome.

Chris says he owes it all to his crack accompanists. "I'm no singer," he shrugs, (in fact, he's got the authentic blues growl pretty much down) "and if you just sit me down with a guitar and amplifier, it's nothing special. This band knows how to work hard to make the frontman sound good." Indeed, they do almost make it look easy, and both Fischer and Catura are tasty soloists as well, with Torbenson taking another choice but brief spotlight in the last tune. Fischer is equally adept at boogie or slow blues, though I wondered in vain if she would sing a number as well. Catura stretched out on tenor with King Curtis' "Soul Twist," and on alto for Al Green's "Love and Happiness," with a nod towards David Sanborn's arrangement. And they all did their job making Cain sound good, tearing through his originals "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee," "Same Old Fool" and the title tune from the album.

The Neville Brothers showed that after over thirty years in the business, they're still hungry, too. Legendary for their incarnations as the ultimate Mardi Gras band, the Wild Tchopitoulas, or for stints with funk progenitors the Meters, or in various solo configurations spanning four decades, they can party with ferocity. Their last two studio albums, however, have shown a marked nudge toward the mainstream, with the edges smoothed off a bit. Such material bogged down an otherwise luminous set only occasionally, though, and the Nevilles quickly recovered momentum. People didn't pack the Catalyst to hear tunes that might break through today's stultifying radio formats; they came for that incendiary brew of funk, jazz, R&B, soul, and Carribean rhythms the Brothers are famous for.

That, for the most part, is what was delivered. Dancers shook their butts to Tchopitoulas tunes like "Big Chief Jolly" and couples swayed while Aaron crooned his 1966 hit "Tell It Like It Is." Songs by composers as diverse as Louis Jordan, Jimmy Buffett, and Hugh Masekela were Nevillized with vigor. Each Neville took his turn in the spotlight; Cyrille scatting masterfully during "People Say," Art opening the set with "Saturday Night Fish Fry," Charles with countless brilliant sax solos. Longtime sideman Bryan Stoltz was notable for his fluid and expressive guitar work.

In the end, no one left disappointed. The Brothers encored with a satisfying medley of "Fiyo on the Bayou," "Amazing Grace," and Bob Marley's "One Love." What's really unsettling is not that they're looking to get some airplay, but that they're unable to do so with such a blissful sound.

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