As his voice carried with gusto across the New Haven Green, Aaron Neville looked as though he hadn’t even broken a sweat. The R&B and soul singer from New Orleans was singing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” as he best does––smoothly, the notes blending together with ease.
Nearly 20,000 New Haveners gathered under the crescent moon Saturday for the opening night of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, where Neville and his quintet headlined.
The first song of the evening, “Stand by Me,” started the members of crowd nodding and humming along. And once they started they didn’t stop. Festival goers seemed especially pleased when Neville played some of his best-known hits: “Everybody Plays the Fool”, “Sarah Smile” and “Tell It Like It Is”––the 1967 hit that first propelled him to the top of Billboard’s R&B chart.
Harmonies provided by the quintet’s melodious voices added the perfect finishing touch to Neville’s covers of classics like Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Neville and his band also played a new Neville origina, “My True Story,” the title track from an album released this past January.
Neville, 72, has collaborated with Linda Ronstadt and with his brothers, as the Neville Brothers. Charles Neville played the saxophone alongside his brother Saturday night. A Roman Catholic, Neville wears an earring for St. Jude, his patron saint, that could be seen dangling from his left ear. Also visible were some his signature tattoos: a cross on his cheek, a heart on his arm, the word “Mom.”
During a lively full-bodied rendition of “Tequila” (during which Neville took a singing break), many in the crowd stood to dance and swing around in the grass. Even the mosquitoes zig-zagging mercilessly around the stage lights seemed, if only for those magic minutes, to be dancing through the air to the music. In the southwest corner of the Green, a crowd of 12 friends sang along loudly to “This Magic Moment.”
Neville’s switching from his effortless falsetto down into a lower baritone was seamless throughout the concert, which lasted nearly two hours. Neville also played an encore that weaved together “Amazing Grace,” “Ave Maria,” “Down by the Riverside,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Happy father’s day to each and every one of you,” he called out across the Green. Amen.
The 2013 Governor’s Arts Awards were awarded prior to Neville’s concert.