There were no free concerts in Prospect Park in the mid-1970s, when the Neville brothers were living in a basement apartment on Union Street. In fact, Prospect Park was someplace you just didn’t go at night. So Aaron Neville and his brothers may not recognize the place, but they’re ready to get reacquainted at the kickoff to “Celebrate Brooklyn” this Thursday night.
The Nevilles are definitely eager to visit the old neighborhood. “Don’t worry,” Aaron said, “We gonna put on a kickin’ show for y’all up there in Brooklyn.”
This year marks both the 30th anniversary of the Neville Brothers and the 40th anniversary of Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,” which peaked at number two on the U.S. Billboard Top 100 and at number one on the U.S. R&B chart back in 1967.
GO Brooklyn asked Aaron Neville — when we finally got him on the line, at a roadside restaurant in Virginia, with time running out on his cellphone battery — to “tell it like it is.” Is there a dominant brother at the moment? Any sibling rivalry to speak of?
“We’re all the dominant brother,” he said with self-assuredness. “Cyril’s the baby, Art’s the oldest— that’s why what we call him Poppa Funk— but we’re all dominant.”
And it’s been a long time coming. “We’ve been trying to get the Nevilles for a long time,” said Jack Walsh, director of “Celebrate Brooklyn.” “We’re really glad the timing finally worked out.”
Born and raised in Park Slope, Walsh has a good sense of the neighborhood and what it stands for. “We wanted to create a concert series that would feel [like it was] about the community,” he said, “like it’s not just sort of plopped down by some outside promoter.”
And it looks like Brooklyn’s in for a lot of hot summer nights. With 25 concerts this summer, two more than ever before, “Celebrate Brooklyn” is the city’s longest-running free performing arts festival, and lures over 250,000 fans to the park each year. Launched in 1979 to bring people back into Prospect Park after years of neglect, “Celebrate Brooklyn” has survived thanks to the gentrification that it helped in part to foster.
Among other pioneering pursuits, “Celebrate Brooklyn” is experimenting with music paired with film; staging performances of live original compositions scored to silent films by Hitchcock and Laurel & Hardy, as well as a showing of “Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin,” a classic Bollywood gangster film, followed by a Bollywood disco dance party.
Though the concerts are for the most part free, in order to ensure the future of the program, there will be several special benefit concerts with tickets priced at $30. One will feature Ani DiFranco and the other Manu Chao, returning after last year’s successful concert for two engagements this year.
Additionally, our over-caffeinated ears perked up when we heard that, for the first year ever, the festival will have an official sponsor: Starbucks. As part of the sponsorship arrangement, visitors to each performance will be treated to free samples of Starbuck’s coffee and summer beverages.
But don’t worry — just because it’s the green behemoth and not a local coffee bar, that doesn’t mean Celebrate Brooklyn’s line-up has gone all corporate. Diversity remains a hallmark, and this year’s roster as eclectic as ever.
“What we’re trying to do is put a lot of fresh ideas out there,” said Walsh, “and then kind of infuse the lineup with recognizable names that resonate in an interesting way.”
There are acts as radical and far ranging as the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars — who are actually refugees — and Isaac Delgado, who recently immigrated from Cuba and plays a kind of salsa-like music known as “pimba.” What’s more, the opener that night is the lead singer of Yerba Buena, Cuba’s foremost revolutionary hip-hop group. And KRS-One, who admits to spending more than a few nights in Prospect Park as a homeless youth in the early ’80s, will be returning to triumphantly rock the mic alongside Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets.
Last summer’s TV On The Radio concert was a revelation, as the stars (Brooklyn band on the cusp of broader success) aligned to create a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event. The Aug. 9 concert featuring several Brooklyn bands, including indie rock darlings the Hold Steady, might be this year’s frontrunner to replicate that “time and place” moment. But there are countless candidates: Lou Reed was recently added to the bill (which already included Ben E. King and others) of a tribute to “Viva Las Vegas” songwriter Doc Pomus.
What it all adds up to, Walsh modestly hopes, is “something worth getting out of the house for on a summer night.”
“Celebrate Brooklyn” will begin on June 14 with an opening night gala and the Neville Brothers in concert. See our “Celebrate Brooklyn” calendar for more information.