Like a lot of people, Charles Neville isn't entirely sure he follows what the Republican party has to say about family values. "I don't know what they're talking about," he admits with a laugh. But when it comes to musical family values, this guy is a genuine expert.
Charles, after all, is one of the Neville Brothers, a clan many consider to be the First Family of New Orleans R&B.; That's no exaggeration, either. The four Nevilles -- Aaron, Art, Cyril and Charles -- have been staples on the New Orleans music scene since the '50s, building individual reputations that would have been solid gold even if they hadn't banded together as the Neville Brothers in 1976.
Of course, it helps that the tradition of music-making goes way back for this family. "Back to our grandparents," says Charles, over the phone from a tour stop in Saratoga, N.Y. (The group plays the Pier Six Concert Pavilion on Thursday). "They weren't professional performers, but everybody was involved in music to some extent.
"That's part of the tradition of New Orleans," he adds. "There are many, many musical families in New Orleans, and that's been a tradition for people to pass that down through generations, and XTC to have members of the family working together."
It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to learn that the band's current album and tour, "Family Groove," is a multigenerational affair. "On 'Family Groove,' we have participation by three generations of Nevilles -- ourselves, some of Aaron's sons, Cyril's sons and my grandsons," says Charles. "And what that term, 'family groove,' represents is that the groove of our family seems to be music, and it's being passed down through the generations."
What makes this familial focus particularly impressive is that each of the Nevilles was doing pretty well individually before the four banded together.Art, for example, sang on his first million-seller in 1955, when he was a teen-age member of the Hawketts (the single was "Mardi Gras Mambo").
Aaron did even better with "Tell It Like It Is," a 1967 single that climbed not only to No. 2 on the national pop charts, but earned him a devoted following among rock stars; Linda Ronstadt even recruited him for a Grammy-winning album of duets in 1990. Nor should we forget the Meters, a mostly instrumental combo featuring Art and (eventually) Cyril, whose recordings ranged from party classics like "Cissy Strut" and "Look-Ka Py Py" to studio sessions with everyone from LaBelle (that's them putting the funk into "Lady Marmalade") to Dr. John.
Taken together, though, the Nevilles are nothing less than awesome, one of the few acts other musicians go out of their way to compliment. Some, like Huey Lewis, are such devoted fans that they hire the Nevilles as an opening act just so they can enjoy hearing them every night -- even though Lewis has admitted there were nights when the Nevilles were so great, he and his band were worried about having to follow them.
Despite such praise, though, the Nevilles rarely give much thought to their reputation. "We don't really even think about that," says Charles. "Each night, we're going to do what we do that night.
"We don't have like a show," he adds. "Like if it was a Broadway show, where everything had to be exactly the same each night, there would be a certain thing about the performance that would be considered doing it perfectly.
"But we just do what we really feel. I think that's one of the things that makes it good to the audience is that we share freely with the audience from our hearts and our souls. That's the thing -- the fact that the music feels so good is what makes it good to the audience."
That unpredictability does have its down side, however. Because the Neville Brothers' sound doesn't play by the usual rules of pop music, the band has never really fit into any of the usual stylistic pigeonholes employed by radio stations. As such, albums by the Nevilles Brothers are almost never played on the radio.
"We've spoken to people from different radio stations who have told us, 'Hey, man, we've been wanting to play you,' " says Charles. "You know, people from different rock stations. They said they liked everything that we'd done, but they couldn't play it on their programs because it wasn't in the rock category. We weren't considered rock."
Of course, as Charles points out, fitting a format didn't used to be a necessity to get on the radio. "If you listen to the nostalgia stations, like the stations that play music of the '60s and the '70s, each recording, each act sounds totally different.
"Whereas now, what the radio stations aim at is having everything they play sound the same. And so individual expression -- the thing that made the music what it was -- has now been just pushed aside."
But not with the Nevilles. Their music continues to grow, adding rap and African elements to a mix that already includes heavy doses of R&B;, blues, gospel and jazz. "Most of this stuff that we incorporate into what we're doing has been part of the ex
perience of our lives," he explains.
And while individual taste accounts for some of that, it also seems to be a reflection of the Nevilles' New Orleans roots.
How so? "I think one of the things is that the music of New Orleans is still as close to folk music as you can get," says Charles. "Folk music is music that expresses things of people's way of life, not something that's done for entertainment or for some other purpose. So the artists from New Orleans go into music for the purpose of making music that allows them to express their spirits, rather than going into music for the purpose of making hit records and making money."
That's why the Neville Brothers are glad that their reputation on the concert circuit has far outstripped their success as a recording act. "Because for us, the live performance, the actual sharing of the music with the audience, is what it's all about," says Charles.
"The main purpose of the record is just to get exposure to a wider audience, just to have more people coming to the concerts. For the people who hear the records, yeah, they're hearing something really good on the records. But it's not like what they're going to experience at the live performance."
Nevilles at Pier Six
When: Thursday at 8 p.m.
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
Tickets: $22.50 reserved seating, $12 lawn. Proceeds to benefit the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust.
Call: (410) 625-3100 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.