In what’s becoming an annual holiday treat, Aaron Neville and the Aaron Neville Quintet featuring Charles Neville returned to Baton Rouge on Monday night for the first of a two-night stand at the Manship Theatre.
“Thanks for coming out on this warm night,” the singing star from New Orleans said on an unusually balmy December evening.
There’s was plentiful Christmas music on the program, and lovingly performed, but Neville and his group also gave the sold-out crowd a preview of his upcoming album, “My True Story.”
Featuring songs that he’s loved since his childhood in the Calliope housing project, “My True Story” is Neville’s homage to doo-wop. Two songs into Monday’s show, he turned to his forthcoming album.
“I have a CD coming out in January,” he said in his soft speaking voice. “Some stuff I’ve been wanting to do for a real long time. Fifties and ’60s doo-wop. That’s the real true music.”
The first selection from the new album was “My True Story,” the 1961 hit by the Jive Five that serves as the album’s title track.
Neville’s talented backup musicians sang surprisingly full backup vocals for the star of the show as he ascended into his falsetto range.
“We’re going all over the place,” Neville said afterward, just before he sang an emotional solo rendition of his 1989 hit duet with Linda Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much.”
While “Don’t Know Much” covered the swept-away, fluttering heart aspect of love, the subsequent “Fever,” first made famous by Neville’s R&B predecessor Little Willie John, expressed primal love. Charles Neville’s low and sultry saxophone and the band’s lusty sway turned up the heat.
Bill Withers wrote and originally recorded “Ain’t No Sunshine,” another moody song of obsession, but Neville has given “Sunshine,” a song so suited to his expressive gifts, a favored place in his repertoire for years. During Monday’s dramatic, reggae-touched performance of the song, Neville danced a slow twist and played air guitar during the instrumental break.
Neville’s quintet sounded great throughout. The group is versatile, too, examples including its frequent high harmony singing and, for holiday selection, “Ave Maria,” electric keyboard playing that simulated the sound of piano and string orchestra.
Honoring his pledge to cover much musical ground, Neville performed Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” The song clearly showed the natural bridge between New Orleans soul man Neville and Irish soul man Morrison.
The night’s other holiday selections included “White Christmas,” done doo-wop style in the manner of the Drifters.
“This is the best time of year for me,” the singer said before launching the much-recorded “The Christmas Song.” Neville’s interpretation, so tender and warm, stands with the best them.
Other highlights included Neville singing the Christmas blues in “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a swinging rendition of the Clovers’ hip 1952 hit, “Ting-A-Ling,” Charles Neville stretching out for “Bésame Mucho” and, bringing it home to New Orleans, a high-spirited “When the Saints Go Marching In” featuring the “Who Dat” chant.
“We enjoyed y’all, too. I want y’all to know that,” Neville said before he and the band took a collective bow and blew a collective kiss to the audience.