Bringing it All Back Home
For his latest LP, N’Orleans’ favored son has crafted a compelling love letter to his hometown.
Dr. John, aka the Night Tripper, fka Mac Rebennack, has been around for over fifty years. But he only became a solo artist in the late 60’s after he’d been kicked out of New Orleans (like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet before him) on drug charges and ended up, post-rehab in Sonny & Cher’s LA studio, cranking out the brilliant Gris-Gris, a captivatingly distinctive mix of psychedelia, Crescent City R&B, and generous sprinklings of Mardi-Gras hoodoo.
But it is as a sideman that Mac Rebennack got his start—and this can be easily ascertained from a brief overview of his career, a patchy mix of reinterpretations of the great music of New Orleans and the likes of Duke Ellington alongside originals and commercial jingles. Focus has really seemed to be the problem for a man whose chops have never been in doubt—a man who became famous for his amazing gifts as pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and as perhaps a response to the acid rock of the day, conducting voodoo rituals as part of his stage show.
Going back to one’s roots heals ills and Dr. John has done this in spades on N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat, or D’udda. Seven originals, featuring hometown pre-exile gang including Dave Bartholomew, Gatemouth Brown, Eddie Bo, and the old “fonk clique” Bill Hunnington, Smokey Johnson and the now-one-legged drummer Earl Palmer, pepper highly individualistic takes on regional chestnuts “Marie Laveau”, “When the Saints go Marching In”, and “St. James Infirmary”. Wardell Quezergue, the finest of N’Orleans songcrafters, arranged all the songs, half blind with his son’s voice in his ear aiding him in stunningly complete reworkings of “Stagger Lee” and “Careless Love”. The spirit of old friend and songwriting partner Doc Pomus manifests itself in a series of Pleasant Joseph tunes, most notably, “Hen Layin’ Rooster”, appropriately featuring BB King. Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band also lend their singular talents to the album—most remarkably to the poignant, yet obscure, classic, “Time Marches On”.
Randy Newman, who’s always at his best when emulating the N’Orleans sound, grants an underwhelming silky nebbish-ness to contrast Dr. John, who is at his finest gruff voice in years. Their duet, “I Ate up the Apple Tree”, was something John sang to his kid years ago. With all of the guest voices, Rebennack’s solo take on “The Monkey” may be the best tune on the album. With little more than that gruff wisdom and Dave Bartholomew’s trumpet comps, the Night Tripper details the wisest of all—a monkey, who “knows”, an animal who intuits far more than the big brains in song, a feeling that pervades the music, takes it over, rather than the other way around.
The result is a highly-charged collection of heartfelt tunes with an additional feeling of something powerful and very mysterious. Dr. John could feel them creeping about the studio: “Nawlins got a whole gang and a half o’ spirits hanging out on the set anyhow”. Nowhere are the spirits more in control than on Rebennack’s original, “I’m Goin Home” a short, soulful, highly spiritual arrangement, featuring choruses of just that line—which he uses to close the album, having let the spirits of the great city have their way to absolutely stunning effect.
N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat, or D’udda 9.1/10. Release date: 7/13/04, Blue Note Records.
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