NEAL & THE VIPERS
by A.J. Wachtel
Experiencing one of Neal & the Vipers’ earth-shattering live performances is akin to being in the parapet of a front-line trench during wartime: it’s always exciting, urgent, loud, serious, action-packed and very, very intense. Never laid back or mellow, these cats are the picture of passion; with all the artillery coming out of their amps. Here what’s in store for one of Rhode Island’s best R&B bands:
Noise: You’ve played almost every bar between New England and New York City during the past 30 years. What keeps you going?
Neal Vitullo: I still have a passion as a performer. A lot of it has to do with appreciating the fact that I am able to continue to learn and grow and perform at this level.
Noise: Your growling guitar licks, technique, virtuosity, and gymnastic live show are legendary. Who are some of your inspirations in each characteristic?
Neal: My inspiration is a culmination of listening and being a musical sponge to American roots guitar playing for the majority of my life, and continuously fine-tuning my craft. I don’t consciously put on someone else’s hat to play a particular thing, or perform a particular way. When I’m lost in playing, I don’t even realize the amount of energy that I’m putting out. Playing the guitar in different positions comes from a long line of blues musicians from T-Bone Walker to Jimi Hendrix. It’s part of being an entertainer.
Noise: Your covers vary from Eddie Cochrane’s fast-paced “Nervous Breakdown” to Jimi’s “Fire.” In all of your versions you can easily identify the main original licks but you always add a lot of yourself in all the renditions. How do you get the right mix of copying and creating when doing a cover?
Neal: For me it’s always been learn it and forget it, meaning that when you play it comes out as you. I interpret it my own way. I start with something I love; as I play the changes just happen.
Noise: You are a good songwriter too. Do you have a set formula or does it vary where you might get the lyrics first in some and in others get the music down to start?
Neal: Most of the time singer Dave Howard brings the lyrics and I will write the music from licks and melodies that tend to stick in my head. Other than that there are a lot of things scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper.
Noise: What are some of your favorite songs?
Neal: “Little Miss Prissy”—it all came together there; “Love In A One Horse Town”—just a powerful shuffle with a good story; “30 Miles Out”—combines both my passions: guitar and fishing.
Noise: You’ve just released a new CD. Tell me a bit about it.
Neal: The latest CD, Full Circle, represents the way the Vipers started, I have the core group back: Dave Howard, Steve Bigelow, and Mike LaBelle. I wanted people to be able to take home a bit of the show that they just experience.
Noise: Your sound is a bit blues, rockabilly, R&B, surf, and American roots rock ’n’ roll. Who are some of your music influences in these different genres?
Neal: After 30-plus years of playing the one constant has been the licks or tones that inspire me to play. Dan Gallop, Tiny Grimes, Nokie Edwards, and Roy Buchanan. And Roy Nichols. It’s that thing that makes me stop what I’m doing and want to pick up the guitar.
Noise: You have a passion for fishing. My friend Elvin Bishop is a legendary life-long fisherman too. How’s being a good guitarist and a good fisherman similar? Different?
Neal: I not sure if there are any similarities between fishing and guitar playing except maybe strings and line. Other than that we are usually driven people that seek an escape and we can’t relax there either. For me I am passionate about both.
Noise: You’ve shared the stage and been guitarist for the night for Willie Dixon, Johnny Copeland, and Roy Buchanan. What do you remember most about each gig and care to share any short stories?
Neal: All experiences were surreal. Playing beside your heroes was a dreamlike time that was never fully understood until much later. It never hit me how heavy it was until later when I could sit back and reflect how lucky and fortunate I have been. I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience those moments. It was awe-inspiring. Fortunately I have had nothing but positive experiences. One that stands out was having my name announced at Madison Square Garden as I was about to perform with John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt. As the great Doc Pomus once said to me “What is it, in the water down there?” It’s just a great melting pot of talent in this area. Very lucky to have been born here at this particular time.
Noise: How has the local music scene changed most in the past 30 years?
Neal: There’s a lot less work and the money’s the same as thirty years ago. Ha ha. The music scene is discouraging because there is way more competition for the entertainment dollar than there was 30 years ago. The economy has made it more difficult for venues to stay open. Fortunately there is still a core group of people that seek out live entertainment. And my die hard fans, people that have followed me from the beginning, I am truly grateful to them for allowing be to be able to do what I do for so long.