The Beat: Neville Jacobs Album Worth the Wait

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A few years ago, Baltimore guitarist Cris Jacobs and New Orleans keyboardist Ivan Neville finally got a chance to do what they had talked about over many a poker game – play some music together.

A successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015 that raised more than $16,000 helped them take the project into the studio with the powerhouse rhythm section of Tony Hall on bass and Brady Blade on drums. But excited fans had to wait – years – until they could hear the music as the band searched for a proper label to release the album and found a release date that would work with its namesake’s busy schedules as bandleaders of the Cris Jacobs Band and Dumpstaphunk.

On Friday, Sept. 28, the brainchild of Baltimore and New Orleans music royalty finally saw the release of its eponymous album via Harmonized Records.

The 9-track album takes listeners through a spectrum of sounds and stands up as a cohesive statement by a band that does not sound like it had just formed, let alone recorded the album in a matter of days.

For Jacobs, the album has aged well.

“It holds up, which at the end of the day is all that you can really hope for when you make a piece of art,” he said. “It feels as natural as it did at the time, and I think the songs that we came up with are really great songs that still hold up, and I’m still proud to play them.”

The band follows up the release with shows in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in December.

Jacobs – former singer and guitarist of Baltimore legends The Bridge and an established singer-songwriter and bandleader in his own right – and Neville – bandleader of New Orleans funk outfit Dumpstaphunk and the son of Aaron Neville whose resume includes stints with Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards – were no strangers before this project. They played shows on the same bill and sat in with each other’s bands over the years, and making music together was something the two musicians had been talking about since they first played poker together at a New Orleans casino in Oct. 2007. Talk of collaborating kept coming up at more poker games until mutual friend Joe Michaels helped get them together and make it a reality.

“You never know how those things are actually gonna turn out,” Jacobs said. “It’s beyond just skill level and taste, it’s also comfort level, vibe, attitude and friendship really, and trust. I think the fact that we have that, Ivan and I … and both of us go about working on music in a similar way when it comes to writing songs, it really just kind of meshed. It was not a forced thing at all.”

And so Neville Jacobs was born. The duo recruited seasoned musicians Hall, Neville’s Dumpstaphunk bandmate who has played with Bob Dylan, David Byrne and Emmylou Harris, and drummer/producer Blade, who played with Hall in Emmylou Harris’ band as well as with Dave Matthews & Friends.

“Playing with guys like Ivan, Tony and Brady, they’re seasoned pros who are really just some of the best natural, soulful musicians that I’ve played with,” Jacobs said.

While the combination of Jacobs’ bluesy, soulful playing and generations of funk in Neville’s DNA made for some tight funky tracks on the Neville Jacobs album, what really shines is the group’s songwriting prowess – whether it’s funk, bluesy rock or ballads – and the complimentary nature of the two musician’s voices and styles.

Fans of Jacobs will recognize songs from his catalogue, the acoustic-driven “City Rain” and “The Stakes,” which shines in its powerfully bluesy glory, pushed to a new level with the chorus of Jacobs, Neville and female backup singers.

Aaron Neville makes an appearance on the album to sing with his son on the self-reflective “Makeup of a Fool.” And the band flexes its funk chops on an overdriven cover of Funkadelic’s “I Wanna Know If It’s Good to You?” (shortened to “I Wanna Know” on the album).

Cris Jacobs (left) and Ivan Neville (Photo provided)

The strongest moments of musical kinship come when Neville and Jacobs play off each other. During the verses of “River Behind Me,” a tribute to Neville’s mother, Jacobs’ acoustic guitar mirrors Neville’s sentimental vocal melody. The upbeat, danceable “Good To You” features some of Neville’s signature wah-tinged keys and organ hits along with Jacobs and Neville harmonizing the song’s chorus.

Little moments from the recording sessions are coming back to Jacobs as he listens to the record with fresh ears.

“It just brings me back to how we wrote those songs together, how we recorded them and how everybody was on top of their game, in the moment,” he said, mentioning the jam at the end of “The Stakes.”

“That was just impromptu,” Jacobs recalled. “The song was over, we were just groovin’ together in the studio and we just kept playing. And sometimes you think ‘oh, we’ll fade that out’ and we were like, ‘let’s just keep all that shit.’ It felt great.”

Neville Jacobs will bring that improvisational camaraderie to The 8×10 in Baltimore on Dec. 13, Gypsy Sally’s in D.C. on Dec. 14 and The Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, Pa., on Dec. 15. Jonathan Sloane, the other guitarist in the Cris Jacobs Band, will join them for the run.

“We’re psyched to get it going,” Jacobs said. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of more and more.”

About THE BEAT: Marc Shapiro, a lifelong musician and concert-goer, writes about regional and national musicians, concerts, festivals and the music industry. He is managing editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore Style. More of his photos can be viewed on his Facebook page, and he can be reached at [email protected].

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