Reviewed: Royal Southern Brotherhood
Royal Southern Brotherhood
(Ruf Records, Released May 2012)
One of the best-selling albums at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival was the product of a band that played their first live show barely six months previous. Royal Southern Brotherhood, with a creative nucleus of New Orleans funk mainstay Cyril Neville, Southern Rock progeny Devon Allman, and up-and-coming bluesman Mike Zito, attracted attention from the moment a video from their debut gig at Rock and Bowl in New Orleans hit YouTube. Usually, such a hyperbolic rise in popularity provokes some initial wariness, but RSB lives up to their fast-growing mound of accolades.
Neville, Allman, and Zito—who share songwriting duties—succeed admirably in synthesizing their various influences into the imprint that defines the band: a classic groove that is heavy with rock sensibilities, yet allows room for the individuals to meander into their favorite genres.
Of course, Neville satisfies in any setting, be it with his many solo projects or his tenure with the Neville Brothers and the legendary Meters. He carries that journeyman expertise to RSB, notably in “Sweet Jelly Donut,” which transcends the oft-used sexual metaphor with a clever narrative and, more importantly, a ramped-up New Orleans beat in the tradition of Professor Longhair, which propels it beyond blues cliché. As a percussionist, even with his minimal kit, he’s a reminder of how the oft-overlooked position often defines the heartbeat of a band.
Still, the appeal of RSB lies in the fusion of its influences. Zito and Allman’s tastes range from Southern rock and blues to British pop and ’70s and ’80s metal, from old time r&b to Merle Travis. Allman’s low-moaning vocals and Les Paul wail rise to family tradition, a convincing argument for good genes, as shown in his sticky smooth, “Left My Heart in Memphis.” Zito, whose solo work leans towards hardcore blues, provides the most poignant songs on the RSB collection with the complex yearning of “Ways About You” and the social commentary of “Hurts My Heart.” Equally proficient on the guitar, Zito’s Telecaster snarl complements Allman’s more luminous approach.
Although RSB can lean toward classic rock, as in the Bon Jovi-esque, “Gotta Keep Rockin,” Neville’s grooves propel the album into a realm that would likely be lost if the collaboration was merely Zito and Allman. In some songs, the double-percussion attack combined with Allman’s crystalline guitar draws comparisons to Santana (but not in a bad way)—which is not surprising considering producer Jim Gaines’s work with that seminal guitarist.
The Royal Southern Brotherhood’s inaugural album, though definitely appealing, shimmers with a polish that belies the charisma of their live show. The good-natured enthusiasm and interplay of Neville, Allman, and Zito—along with five-string bassist Charlie Wooten and drummer Yonrico Scott—combine into a propulsive grittiness that reflects the true nature of the band. Energetic performers all, at a June show in Nashville, in between the displays of guitar pyrotechnics, Allman and Zito expressed genuine awe and admiration when Neville put down his drumsticks, grabbed the microphone from the stand, and stepped away from his kit to cut loose, as he did on “Moonlight Over the Mississippi.”
From the beginning, RSB has cultivated an ethos based on the brotherhood theme, reflected in the Neville/Zito collaboration “New Horizons” which is often the opening song in their shows. This thematic element gives the band a foundation from which they can build a fan base, and a hook on which the inevitable tour followers can hang their Greyhound Discovery Passes. Now on an ever-lengthening tour—they will have been to Europe more then once since the beginning of summer—the enthusiasm expressed by band members in their social-media updates suggests the sincerity and potential of a band to which all members, despite their various solo endeavors, are committed for the long haul.