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Neville Say Neville: Despite the fact that he looks somewhat like Will Smith in this picture, this is in fact Cyril, the funkiest Neville brother.

Who Feels It, Knows It

Cyril Neville brings the Uptown Allstars to Moe's Alley for a high-energy night of New Orleans funk and reggae rhythms

By Janet Blaser

New Orleans is not Santa Cruz. Water is not conserved, recycling is unheard of and cigarettes are as much a part of the atmosphere as the hypnotic Southern drawl.

Out of this steamy city, America's musical heritage was birthed, and continues to grow and nurture generation after talented generation. Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Wynton and Branford Marsalis--the list goes on and on and shows no sign of ending. And of course the Neville Brothers--Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril--are an integral part of this spicy Southern gumbo.

Cyril, the youngest, and some would say the most radical of the brothers, comes to Moe's Alley Saturday night for two shows with his band, the Uptown Allstars. The group is aptly named--all of its members have played with either or both the Nevilles and the Meters--and Cyril wants people to recognize the Allstars as the missing link between these two seminal bands.

"Everything that was good, during that time, they were doing it," he says by phone from his home in New Orleans. "They were the backbone of the Neville Brothers."

The about-to-be-released album, Just for the Funk of It, is the fulfillment of a longtime dream of sharing with the world what Neville calls "the only second-line reggae band in existence." The music takes New Orleans syncopated funk, the prancing strut of the Mardi Gras Indians and classic Jamaican dancehall, throws in some rhythm and roll and the brassy undulations of second line, and emerges with a smiling, umbrella-twirling life of its own.

"When that spirit hits you, you know it," says Neville. "That's what this music is all about--when the spirit gets into your legs and makes 'em do things you didn't know they could do. It's basically fun music, dance music, and every now and then there's something to think about, but not to dwell on."

The title track is deep-down-and-dirty funk in the George Clinton tradition, as is "The Projects," which mixes old-school funk with rap. "We The People," an anthem of solidarity, sashays from gospel to second-line rhythms and back again with funky N'Awlins panache. Remember, it was Cyril--the outspoken Neville, the percussionist known for stretching out on congas and talking drum--who penned the soul-stirring lyrics of songs like "Sista Rosa," "Wake Up" and "Blood Down There."

Church of Funk

Music has always been the medium that has touched and transformed Neville's life. As a child, he would sneak away from the Catholic church he was supposed to be attending (even bribing his sister Cookie not to tell with the money intended for the collection basket) and instead go peek in the windows of a small Baptist church nearby.

"It was a little bitty church, and people would get out their cars and they was dressed--man, they was cool!" he says, laughing at the memories. "That little church would be rockin' from side to side with music and grooves. Damn! It looked like James Brown, with the preacher on his knees and people fallin' down all round."

Neville's window-peeping got him a front-row seat to see music greats like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and "Five Blind Boys from everywhere--Alabama, Mississippi, Texas."

"The expressions I saw on the faces in the Baptist church were the same expressions I saw on my Uncle Jolly's face at the ballroom around the corner," he says. "I'd go peek in the club and see the same vibe. Makin' the people look the same way, look like they felt the same way, all about the same kind of spirit in the house. It wasn't like that at the Catholic church."

Like the legacy of the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley, both of whom Neville played with and counts among his mentors, Neville sees himself and his musical contributions with a broad, spiritual understanding.

"This whole thing is a meant-to-be thing--it's much more than a band," he says. "It's a family, creating music. We are the keepers of the Uptown Funk."

Cyril Neville and the Uptown Allstars perform Saturday (April 19) at 9:30pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. For ticket information, call 479.1854.

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From the April 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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