Aaron Neville has one of the most distinctive – and heavenly – male voices in popular music.
He’s had a handful of hits, but he’s really, in essence, a remarkable song stylist, as he demonstrated in a generous performance of about three-dozen tunes on Sunday at the sold-out Dakota in Minneapolis.
The stripped-down performance featured just Neville’s vulnerable, falsetto-inclined voice accompanied by Michael Goods’ piano for 1¾ hours as the crowd listened with rapt attention.
Neville may look like a weight-lifting heavyweight from a tough neighborhood (he is) and speak in a deep voice that could be as intimidating as his muscles. But he sings in a gentle flutter with a gorgeous grace and romantic tenderness that weave church and valentines into the same seamless oeuvre.
Unlike other songs stylists, Neville, 78, doesn’t draw heavily on the Great American Songbook but rather on a wide range of great American popular songs.
Seated behind an electric piano he rarely played at the Dakota, Neville relished the doo-wop and R&B of his youth as well as classics by Billy Joel, Bill Withers and James Taylor, gems by Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams, a slice of his hometown of New Orleans, a detour into blues and spirituals, and a brief dip into the Great America Songbook, with a taste of Nat King Cole and Hoagy Carmichael.
And, of course, there were Neville hits, including the Linda Ronstadt duet “Don’t Know Much," the Neville Brothers’ “Voodoo” and his own brilliant “Arianne,” one of the night’s highlights, and the 1966 smash “Tell It Like It Is,” which found the fans harmonizing along at his behest.
Throughout, Goods subtly peppered the pieces with unmistakably New Orleans-flavored piano passages – except on “Mona Lisa” when he played synthesized strings on an electric piano.
Goods’ love of Cresent City stride and syncopation put a new spin on the Percy Mayfield blues “Send Me Someone to Love” and the Johnny Otis rocker “Willie and the Hand Jive.” And his calliope-like sounds gave “Tell It Like It Is” a brighter sheen.
Every once in a while, Neville would make a comment as an aside, like “I sang this at my wedding,” “James Taylor is one of my favorite singers” or one song made him feel like “slow dancing like we used to.”
Neville was in good spirits on Sunday. And in good voice. And in good humor, which was obvious when he played the Mickey Mouse Club theme song near the end of the night. “Y because I love you,” he sang -- perhaps as much as the Dakota crowd loved him.
Neville returns to the Dakota at 7 p.m. on Monday.