Aaron Neville gets in the holiday spirit

Soulful singer brings his Christmas show to Rams Head On Stage

  • Singer Aaron Neville performs Thursday at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis.
Singer Aaron Neville performs Thursday at Rams Head On Stage… (Sarah A. Friedman, Handout…)
December 09, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

It's the season of the Christmas album.

They fill the racks at your neighborhood music store: Annie Lennox's "A Christmas Cornucopia," "Christmas with the Rat Pack," "Christmas with the Chipmunks." Even Pink Martini has "Joy to the World," a nondenominational holiday album.

Aaron Neville, for one, is avoiding them.

"I don't hear a lot of the Christmas albums," he said. "There are too many."

The multiple-Grammy winner is in a position to know. In a career that spans five decades, he has recorded two of them, including one that went platinum. And every December, he tours with his own Christmas show, which stops at Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis on Thursday.

With all these holiday albums, he said, what gets lost is the meaning of the season. They're more stocking stuffers than spiritual music, which is what he thinks holiday music should be.

"The season is talking about Jesus' birthday. A lot of people talk about buying presents and get away from the real reason of Christmas," he said.

The holiday-music genre is sort of vexing to begin with. Very rarely does anything but a cover come along. These albums usually consist of songs that have been covered so much even Santa would blanch. But Neville, who has a bias obviously, said they actually do play an important role. For one, they helped him cope after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his native New Orleans.

A longtime singer of gospel music and a devout Roman Catholic — he credits religion with helping him kick heroin — the 69-year-old recorded his first holiday album, "Soulful Christmas," in 1993. Heavy on the religious tunes, it saw him covering classics like "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

"Soulful Christmas" sold a million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and resulted in a joint appearance in a nationally broadcast television special with Carol Burnett and Harry Connick Jr., who had that year's highest-selling holiday album.

Neville started doing his annual Christmas show some nine years later, he said. Shortly after, he released his next holiday album, "Christmas Prayer," which featured his interpretations of "Ave Maria" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

Given the strong Christian component in his albums, it's surprising to hear that during the holidays, Neville prefers not to listen to carols or cheery jingles.

"I listen to Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield," he said. "He may not have a Christmas song, but I listen to Marvin Gaye anyway. He's got the spiritual stuff I like."

On his show, Neville will do a combination of his two registers — the religious stuff, and that which can only be labeled uplifting. Possessed with a soothing tenor that matured in the 1960s, he'll put it to good use to sing modern standards like "White Christmas," "Merry Christmas Baby" and Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song."

At Rams Head, Neville will also perform songs from his new album, "I Know I've Been Changed," his first gospel album since Hurricane Katrina.

When he started collaborating with longtime friend Allen Toussaint, who also grew up in New Orleans and attended the same school as Neville and his brothers, he wanted the songs to reflect on the aftermath of the hurricane and the personal toll it took on him, he said.

The hurricane took his house, and the homes of his brothers and children, he said. It also destroyed notebooks full of lyrics, poetry he'd been writing since the 1970s.

Still, "so many lost their lives," he said. "I can't complain."

The catastrophe made him appreciate his hometown.

"New Orleans is my birthplace. It's in my blood. The people there are part of me," he said. "When people went through all kinds of changes, I could feel it. I know friends I thought I'd never see again."

These days, Neville commutes between Covington, La., and Los Angeles, where he recorded the new album over five days. But his favorite place to perform is New Orleans. He usually plays there two or three times a year, performing by himself or with his brothers, with whom he traditionally closes the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"The city is magic," he said.

When he said that he took refuge in music in the aftermath of Katrina, it suggested there was another reason people might go to a Christmas show other than just to be uplifted.

"I think people come to show to forget their troubles," he said. "They're distracted for two hours, and they're listening to good music and clapping their hands and singing along."



If you go

Aaron Neville performs Thursday at Rams Head on Stage, 33 West St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $69. Go to ramsheadonstage.com.

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