LOS ANGELES, CA- When I was seventeen years old, my now deceased mother moved from icy, grey-hued Buffalo, NY to the warm purple, green and gold Mardi Gras saturated French Quarter of New Orleans. After my first Greyhound trip down to ‘The City that Care Forgot’ I became obsessed with everything New Orleans from its spicy Cajun food to its bayous full of alligators and Zydeco music to its history- especially the early Storyville jazz pioneers and the cool cats of the late 1940s to mid-1960s New Orleans rhythm & blues scene. I collected them all.

That is how the Neville Brothers came onto my radar- first with eldest brother Art Neville and his mid-’50s band The Hawketts “Mardi Gras Mambo,” soon followed by Aaron and his incredible funereal death threat “Over You” (1960), his laid back “Tell It Like It Is” (1966) and eventually followed by all the rest of the Neville Brothers catalog. Art recently passed away in New Orleans on July 22, 2019, so I was thrilled to have a chance to see Aaron Neville perform so soon afterward with his duo at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

On this warm and clear early November evening with just a sliver of waxing moon haunting the West Los Angeles sky, piano player Michael Goods enters the beautiful Royce Hall stage, sits confidently at his piano and begins an instrumental version of the 1947 Louis Armstrong/Billie Holiday song “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” Playing with passion in a rollicking New Orleans barrelhouse style, Goods, a portly man with a clean-shaven head and glasses, is here tonight accompanying Aaron Neville as part of his duo.

Aaron Neville Duo @ Royce Hall 11/2/19. Photo by Reed Hutchinson for CAP UCLA. Used with permission.
Aaron Neville Duo @ Royce Hall 11/2/19. Photo by Reed Hutchinson for CAP UCLA. Used with permission.

Aaron, dressed in Panama hat, dark blazer and a yellow and orange starburst tie-dyed t-shirt, soon enters the stage to rousing applause and sits center stage in front of a keyboard and microphone. He begins with a medley of songs from the early ’60s: Ben E. King, Sam Cooke, and The Drifters, setting the mood for what will be a night of classic covers, everything from Nat King Cole to Roberta Flack to George Jones to James Taylor.

“I’m from a musical family and a musical city you know,” Aaron begins, explaining his setlist choices, “I got a million songs running through my head.”

Although everything on the playlist tonight is amazingly soulful, the highlights, in my opinion, are a few that got some extra New Orleans elbow grease in terms of feeling and piano, The Clovers 1952 song “Ting-A-Ling,” Leiber & Stoller’s “Love Potion #9,” “Use Me” by Bill Withers, Aaron’s own “Every Day” and “Tell It Like it Is” and a spiritual medley of “Down by the Riverside,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the New Orleans Saints football chant “Who Dat?”

My favorite number of the night was surprisingly the only one I had never heard before, a song called “Congo Square” written and first recorded by Sonny Landreth as a swampy rocker in 1985. After listening to the original, I much preferred Aaron’s version, stripped-down, evocative and bare, oozing with depth and passion.

“Might be superstition, but some kind of somethin’ goin’ on down there,
It might be superstition, but some kind of somethin’ goin’ on down there,
It’s an old time tradition, when they play their drums at night in Congo Square…”

After a 90-minute set of 30 songs, Aaron ended this incredible evening with another classic, The Spaniels 1954 doo-wop hit, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” It was the perfect way to send the appreciative crowd home with a bit of New Orleans lagniappe and a smile.

Follow Aaron Neville on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.