Meanwhile, Still Dancing On The Brink Of Disaster
"Big Chief" (Gaines-Quezergue)
Cyril Neville & The Uptown Allstars, from The Fire This Time, Endangered Species, 1994
More grooves above
This week’s Carinval post gets us up into the late 20th Century with this cut from Cyril Neville & The Uptown Allstars, Cyril’s offshoot band for many years when he resided in New Orleans and wasn’t gigging with the Neville Brothers. The Allstars are no more; and Cyril now lives in Austin, TX, helping to funkify the music scene there.
“Big Chief” is, of course, the Mardi Gras classic which first appeared on Professor Longhair’s 1965 Watch single (with Earl King on vocal). I featured it on February 6, 2005. King wrote the song, though it was credited to Gaines and Quezergue (producer, Wardell). If you are not familiar with New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian culture (see below), the song’s Indian references and terms like Spy Boy and Flag Boy can be confusing; but, in essence, the song is about nothing more than the celebratory aspects of Carnival: having fun, dancing all night, feeling good. Neville frames it with a brief introductory explanation of his take on Mardi Gras Indians, then gives shout-outs near the end to various past and present Big Chiefs, before closing with a snippet from the Wild Tchoupitoulas album..
While Cyril re-invents this song, he keeps it’s spirit intact. There are similarities to how the Neville Brothers have performed it over the years; but his interpretation does not have Longhair’s patented intricate, syncopated piano riffs or the second line march beat of the original. Still, it’s a funk monster. ‘Mean’ Willie Green, long-time drummer for the Neville Brothers, does the beat honors here, along with Cyril and others on percussion; and bassist Peter Carter offers a masters class in bottom end get-down. Brother Art ‘Poppa Funk’ Neville sits in on piano, along with Terry Manuel. Mike Napolitano and Charles Moore are on guitars. The impressive horn section arrangements are by trombonist Emmanuel Stieb; and the sax solo is by Greg Tardy. Cyril and Mr. Napolitano produced the CD.
Now out of print, The Fire This Time was originally released on Neville’s own Endangered Species (never more true than now!) label and was re-issued several years later on Iguana, and is worth picking up should you run across one. The Uptown Allstars’ sound often combined elements of reggae and Caribbean music with New Orleans street beat funk. Most of the songs were Cyril’s originals and were often even more politically and culturally conscious that in his work with his brothers. But the grooves were frequently massive from this band, which, like his family outfit, was always best enjoyed live.
Note: Thanks to The Funk Files for alerting me to this article on a transplanted Mardi Gras Indian.