The Neville Brothers were nothing less than the New Orleans house band – the equivalent of Motown’s Funk Brothers and Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew. As such, Arthur, Charles, Aaron and Cyril are implicated in over 50 years of some of the highest-grade funk, blues and soul that have ever been served. They’ve taken numerous swings as headliners in various configurations, with mixed commercial results. With his distinctive airborne falsetto, Aaron became the group’s pop star, but the Meters (which included Art and Charles) claim a legacy much like the Velvet Underground’s: They only sold a couple of records when they were active, but everyone who bought one went on to form a funk band.
Dumpstaphunk, a Gen 2 vehicle featuring Aaron’s son Ivan on organ and Arthur’s son Ian on guitar, has been teaching the proper funk arts to the jam scene for going on a decade now, and jam seems finally on the verge of getting the point. Their fathers enjoyed universal prestige among musicians and aficionados, but struggled to sell records despite enthusiastic cameos from the biggest of stars. These days, of course, no one sells records. Modest sales are pretty much the only sales. That sucks, but at least it is not especially problematic for legendary live acts like Dumpstaphunk. A sustainable live career is the Grail now, and they kill it live as dead as it has ever been killed.
Still, the dream – the burning need – to make a great record lives on, even though the material rewards of doing so have been all but removed from the equation. Funk-based bands face additional challenges in the recording process. As a quintessential ensemble act, funk can sometimes appear to be background in search of foreground, the complexities and interdependencies of deep groove in search of the single point of focus that (the theory goes) recorded pop music requires. Funk’s most successful recording artists overcame this in various ways. Sly did it simply by having great songs, James Brown with his intimidating charisma, P-Funk with a theatricality that transcended theater and became a transportive futurist mythology, à la Sun Ra.
From the downbeat, Dumpstaphunk’s debut EP, 2007’s Listen Hear, the target seems to be a hard-rockified, socially aware funk in the vein of the early Chili Peppers or Fishbone: a sensible place to aim. But 2013 finds a far more seasoned and assured Dumpstaphunk reaching for deeper pasts and more personally hallowed spaces. Dirty Word is an exceptional piece of layered, warm and intricate funkcraft every bit deserving of the Neville name. A great record has in fact been made.
Four lines into Track One, you’ve already heard four lead vocalists, à la Sly’s family band approach, and the chorus is a big unison P-Funk homage. Now as ever, the big names line up to play with the Nevilles. Ani DiFranco sings on the title track; Flea adds a third (yes, a third) bass track to the grunge-funk of “If I’m in Luck”; Papa Art Neville cameos on the greasy New Orleans funk closer “Raise the House.”
Tradition and contemporaneity dance with ease throughout these 11 tracks, permitting even the odd indie-rock drone of “They Don’t Care” without contradiction. These are Nevilles from New Orleans, after all. They own all music.
Dumpstaphunk with special guest the Big Takeover, Thursday, September 19, 8 p.m., $20/$30/$40,Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.