Most artists make albums. Cyril Neville makes gumbos. Served up in September 2013 on Ruf Records, Magic Honey finds the 64-year-old Southern icon on anarchic form, snatching inspiration from a kaleidoscope of sources and shaking up a sonic cocktail where anything goes. “I’m extremely proud of this record,” notes Cyril of his latest signature dish. “It’s a tasteful, well-cooked musical gumbo that I think will be pleasing to the palates of music lovers.”
Singer. Poet. Percussionist. Neville Brother, Meters legend, solo star and talisman of the South’s all-conquering new supergroup, Royal Southern Brotherhood. Just as Cyril Neville’s career path keeps you guessing, so Magic Honey defies expectations and breaks out of any pigeonhole you try to place around it. One foot may often be planted in the traditions of his beloved blues on these twelve new songs – take the raw emotion on Something’s Got A Hold On Me or the slow-burning Blues Is The Truth – but the other is striding out and kicking the rulebook into touch.
There’s the spring-heeled, funk-flavoured strut of Running Water, the snare-cracking groove of Invisible and the stinging title track (“My baby is a queen bee… magic honey dripping from her hive”). There’s the amped-up satirical sideswipe of Money and Oil (“Don’t matter how you feel, it’s all sell, sell, sell”) and the album’s most overtly rock-out moment, Working Man (“Got no time for living, ’cos I’m working all the time…”). By the time you reach the silver-tongued reggae lilt of Slow Motion and the irresistible dancefloor-filler that is Swamp Funk, you’ll be reminded that Cyril is a songwriter who combines a clear artistic vision with a wandering eye.
Magic Honey is the kind of genre-slipping statement that’s only possible when you’ve got a crack musical squad pulling together, and as Cyril began putting the heat under this gumbo at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana, he was flanked by plenty of capable cooks. On production, David Z lived up to his mighty reputation – earned alongside Prince, Buddy Guy, Etta James and more – creating an organic sound on Magic Honey that pulsed and breathed. “I waited a long time to work with David Z,” says Cyril of the partnership, “and I feel the wait was well worth it. I love how the record turned out and look forward to working with him again, soon.”
Out on the floor, meanwhile, a bedrock of first-call musicians locked into a musical telepathy that meant the LA sessions felt less like a dry box-ticking exercise and more like a group epiphany. “Making this record was a spiritual, musical event,” agrees Cyril. “The musicians and I approached it like it was an important gig we were playing. All the tracks are first takes. The atmosphere was just that electric. All the way live! And I was blessed with the best rhythm section for the occasion in ‘Mean’ Willie Green (drums), Cranston Clements (guitar), Carl Dufrene (bass) and Norman Caesar (keys).”
Along with a dash of Neville family DNA – courtesy of Gaynielle Neville and Omari Neville on soaring backup vocals – there’s also a sprinkle of celebrity stardust, with New Orleans veteran Allen Toussaint handling the keys on the cuckolded shuffle of Another Man, Dr. John on organ for Swamp Funk, ex-Bluesbreakers’ axeman Walter Trout boiling up Running Water and Cyril’s Royal Southern Brotherhood bandmate Mike Zito lending muscular riffing to Money and Oil and Working Man.
It’s one hell of a guest-list, and only serves to underline the respect and pulling-power that Cyril Neville has amassed during his four-plus decades in the industry. Music legends don’t keep CVs, but if they did, Cyril’s would land with a thump. Born in late-’40s New Orleans, Louisiana, as the youngest of the four siblings who would soon define that city’s R&B sound as The Neville Brothers, Cyril absorbed his parents’ vinyl collection and found his own voice when he turned professional at 19. His first gig was with Art Neville and the Neville Sounds (alongside elder brothers Art and Aaron), and though his subsequent splinter-group Soul Machine never quite achieved the heights it was due, Cyril was on fire, pricking up ears with 1970’s debut solo single, Gossip, then arriving in the lineup of Art’s funk outfit, The Meters.
By that point, The Meters were already flying off the back of 1969’s smash-hit Cissy Strut. Now, Cyril brought congas and vocals to timeless albums including 1972’s Cabbage Alley and 1975’s Fire On The Bayou, and when unabashed über-fan Mick Jagger invited The Meters to open up the Rolling Stones’ US stadium tour of 1974, Art’s suggestion that Cyril take lead vocals was vindicated by a series of roof-raising performances.
The Meters were too special to last, but the lineup’s dissolution in 1976 cleared the path for the bloodline to regroup as The Neville Brothers and start a four-decade hot-streak – from 1976’s Wild Tchoupitoulas, via 1989’s Grammy-winning Yellow Moon, to 2004’s Walkin’ In The Shadows Of Life – that continues to this day. Suffice to say, when critics refer to this band as New Orleans’ first family of funk, it’s not hot air or hyperbole, but a statement of fact.
Lesser artists might be content to sit back and watch the royalties roll in. Cyril, by contrast, remains creatively insatiable. He not only maintains a thrilling solo career that’s given us classics like 1994’s The Fire This Time and 2000’s New Orleans Cookin’, but has also collaborated with icons including Bob Dylan, Bono and Willie Nelson, toured the world with funk act Galactic, led his offshoot band Tribe 13, founded his own record label Endangered Species and made TV appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and HBO’s Treme.
An artist with a conscience, Cyril has also spread good karma, both through the New Orleans Musicians Organized (NOMO) project that helps fledgling bands navigate the shark-infested waters of the rock industry, and alongside Tab Benoit on the 2005 Voice of the Wetlands Allstars tour that raised the profile of the Louisiana Gulf Coast’s environmental plight.
“Oh, Cyril is quite the character,” says Mike Zito of his bandmate’s sprawling backstory. “I mean, he’s the guy. He’s got all the stories. He’s been around the world a million times, played with everybody and their brother. He’s toured with the Rolling Stones, he’s friends with Keith Richards, he’s written songs with Bono. He’s done everything anybody could ever do…”
Not quite. In September 2013, with no sign of his stride slowing down, Cyril Neville puts yet another cherry on top of his astonishing career with Magic Honey. It’s the gumbo you’ve been waiting for.
1. Magic Honey
2. Swamp Funk
3. Somethings's Got A Hold On Me
4. Another Man
5. Still Going Down Today
6. You Can Run But You Can't Hide
8. Blues Is The Truth
9. Running Water
10. Working Man
11. Money And Oil
12. Slow Motion