Imagine Aaron Neville singing “Silent Night.” If ever there was a song tailored for the fragile flutter of Neville’s hummingbird-like hovercraft vocals, delicate and yet suffused with reverent intensity, it is that softest of Christmas carols.
Neville has always been the odd man in, the gentle giant among the funk and syncopation of The Neville Brothers ensemble. While his siblings engaged in the irresistibly catchy second-line rhythms of nuggets such as “Fiyo On the Bayou,” there was Aaron, his trademark eyebrow mole, subdued tattoos and pierced earring atop his bursting, body-builder physique, standing there ready to cut loose with. … the voice of an angel.
That unmistakable falsetto first arrested our attention on the hit ballad from the Sixties, “Tell It Like It Is,” urging someone to “forget your foolish pride.” Over the decades, as Aaron increasingly embraced religion, that sense of sweet surrender became more pronounced in his work. His solo material was enmeshed in gospel songs and Christmas fare. To hear him unscroll a spiritual like “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which kicks off his 2000 CD, “Devotion,” is to hear the path of righteous time in effortless revelry.
Seven years earlier, the self-explanatory “Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas” was released, complete with the aforementioned “Silent Night” along with kindred lullabies like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” and Mel Torme’s “chestnuts roasting …” ballad, “The Christmas Song.”
Neville will probably warble them all tonight in the intimate confines of the Dakota, backed by his older brother Charles Neville on saxophone and other instruments. He may also offer up more spirituals from his latest gospel release, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” including “I Am a Pilgrim” and a rollicking version of “You’ve Got to Move.” A year shy of his 70th birthday, the man hasn’t lost his distinctive vocal caress. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a … woolly caterpillar, nuzzling its way down your cheek to the nape of your neck. He’ll bring the Christmas season in on the cat feet the poet Carl Sandburg once described. What a wonderfully soothing opening salvo for this December.
Here is Neville with Linda Ronstadt singing “Silent Night.”
Here he is at the same concert performing “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Christmas with the Aaron Neville Quintet, featuring Charles Neville, tonight and tomorrow night, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at 7 p.m.; tickets are $55-$90 and nearly sold out for both shows.