Aaron Neville to headline Detroit’s tree lighting

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Aaron Neville, the self-described “hoodlum angel,” will bring some New Orleans warmth to the outside stage at Campus Martius as he headlines a docket of entertainment starting at 5 p.m. Friday at the 13th Annual Detroit Tree Lighting Ceremony.

A 60-foot Norway Spruce decorated for the holidays will be unveiled, and Neville says he will sing an uptempo holiday song, as well as his much-loved hits “Tell it Like it Is” from 1966, and “Yellow Moon,” one of his memorable Neville Brothers numbers.

“It’s going to be nice and warm, right?” teased Neville, 75, unleashing a murmuring laugh as melodic as his singing voice.

While the singer epitomizes New Orleans soul, he lives on a bucolic upstate New York farm with his second wife, photographer Sarah Friedman, whom he wed in 2010.

He’s lived through northern winters in New York City, but this will be his first winter out in the country, with the chickens.

“I loved the city when I lived there, but now I love the country,” Neville said. “The peace and quiet, the four seasons, the trees changing.”

He also loves that he can sing as loudly as he wants out in the fields. His chickens don’t mind.

“They’re in their own world,” he said, laughing.

Nor do his cats mind. Recently Neville Tweeted out a video of himself singing an unreleased song he and the late Larry Williams wrote in the early ’60s. You can see Neville reclined on a sofa, singing rhythmically as his two cats (and dog) look on, bored.

Neville also has a recent album, “Apache,” released last summer, with songs based upon poems he wrote on his iPhone.

Hurricane Katrina pushed the singer out of his much-loved New Orleans in 2005. Then when his wife, Joel, died in January 2007 of lung cancer, he was so crushed by her loss after 48 years of marriage — the two had been married as teenagers in 1959 — he couldn’t live in New Orleans. He does return to perform at Jazzfest every year.

“So many memories of (Joel) in New Orleans, it’s not cool for me right now,” Neville said. “My family is down there, my kids, my brothers Art and Cyril. Although most of the people I grew up with are either dead or doing time.”

He makes no apologies for not touring with the Neville Brothers anymore.

“The brothers broke up. We came to a plateau, we did 40 years on the road. But it comes a time in your life that you want to do other things in your life, and you can’t do both. I’ve always said, I’ve got a long ways to go and a short time to make it in, so I got to do some things that I want to do.”

His album “Apache” (from a childhood nickname, because his skin reddened in the sun) is one of those things.

“Stomping Ground” is a joyous celebration of New Orleans, and the neighborhoods and people Neville encountered, growing up. He calls out the names of the dead and living. He is lucky to be alive, having had several brushes with drugs and a few stints in prison before turning his life around, hence “hoodlum angel.”

No matter what was going on in his life, he always sang like an angel. The gorgeous, gospel-tinged song “Heaven” comes from a poem he wrote on his iPhone. His collaborators on “Apache,” album co-producer Eric Krasno (of the groups Soulive and Lettuce) and Dave Gutter, helped craft “Heaven” and the other numbers on “Apache” into songs.

“I wrote the poem and came up with the heaven part — ‘I hope to see you there,’ ” Neville sings softy. “It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, too.

“I have about 100 poems in my phone. The only way I write is, I get inspired, I can’t just sit down and write. Like ‘Fragile World’; that’s from watching what’s going on in the world, and what I’ve been through, too, with Katrina.”

How does he deal with stress?

“Pray,” Neville said quickly. “Yeah, I pray all day.”

And he sings, out where the chickens don’t care.

“He who sings, prays twice.”

13th Annual Detroit Tree Lighting Ceremony

5 p.m. Friday

Campus Martius Park

Entertainment: Aaron Neville, Olympic skating champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and five Metro Detroit skating clubs.