Graded on a Curve:
Dr. John,
Dr. John’s Gumbo

In my experience, New Orleans is like the sixties—if you can remember the damn town, you were never there. My first wife and I spent a remarkable night whose details totally elude me roaming Bourbon Street—everything after the first two hurricanes is a drink and drug-fueled blur. Wonderful town though—I would like to think I had a great time there.

New Orleans isn’t renowned simply as one of the fleshpots of Egypt—it boasts a remarkable musical history as well. And on 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo, the beloved Mac Rebennack looks backwards to New Orleans storied R&B, jazz, and boogie woogie past—and the work of such immortals as Huey “Piano” Smith, Professor Longhair, and Earl King—and puts his unique spin on some truly timeless songs.

Dr. John led a multitude of lives before he broke through to solo success in the late sixties. Session musician, record label A&R man and producer, narcotics dealer, and brothel operator are all on his resume, and you can add jailbird while you’re at it as Dr. John’s own long-time heroin addiction led to a two-year prison term in Texas. It speaks volumes about The Night Tripper’s rough and ready lifestyle that he was forced to switch from guitar to piano after catching a bullet left-handed while defending a friend, singer/keyboardist Ronnie Barron. I don’t know if you can hear Dr. John’s chequered past in his music, but I like to think I can.

From opening track “Iko Iko” Dr. John’s Gumbo swings, and the music never stops. As Bobby Christgau noted in his review of the LP, “If Huey Smith or Allen Toussaint captures more of the spirit of New Orleans they don’t do it in any album you can buy in a store.” “Iko Iko” is pure syncopated brilliance—between the Doctor’s marvelous piano playing and the great horn arrangement and the female backing vocalists, this one is a rich musical jambalaya that will leave you wanting seconds.

Dr. John’s take on Huey Smith’s “Blow Wind Blow” shows his limitations as a vocalist, but believe me when I say said limitations just make him more lovable. He makes a big blustery noise just like the wind he wants to blow his troubles away, but his piano playing ain’t going nowhere because it’s solid as a rock. Meanwhile, Ronnie Barron contributes some truly funky organ to Dr. John’s irresistible cover of Earl King’s “Big Chief” while the good doctor sings, “Me big chief, me feeling good” and a veritable bouillabaisse of horns provides taut punctuation. And speaking of “Big Chief,” it’s hard to beat a song that ends with the repeated refrain, “Find a levee and burn it down.”

It’s a credit to Rebennack’s songwriting prowess that his sole contribution to the LP, “Somebody Changed the Lock,” sounds every bit the standard as the rest of the songs on the album. Raucous Dixieland piano and horns turn this one into the perfect accompaniment to an old school French Quarter striptease act, and it segues perfectly into the very happy-making gallop on the piano that is “Mess Around.” Go ahead and get down everybody! And the good times just keep on rollin’ on follow-up “Let the Good Times Roll,” which is as juicy and salacious as they come. This is party music from the greatest party city in the world, and it practically oozes funk.

Meanwhile, “Junko Partner” is the straight-up jauntiest tune about being strung out on heroin you ever will hear; “Down the road,” sings Dr. John, “Came a Junco Partner/For he was loaded as can be/He was knocked out, knocked out loaded/He was a’wobblin’ all over the street.” Meanwhile Dr. John and band juke and jive, and make lively—our junkie may have one badass monkey on his back, but he’s still got that swing. “Stack-A-Lee” is a piano showcase, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Dr. John’s vocals combine both grits and gravel on this one.

Meanwhile, Rebennack’s cover of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” is the only song on the LP that sounds its age, but The Night Tripper saves it being a museum piece by belting out the lyrics like he wants to be heard the whole way to Baton Rouge. He even manages to update the “Huey “Piano” Smith Trilogy,” and ingeniously intertwines all three songs into a seamless whole in the process. You’ll definitely want to sing along with the female backing vocalists on this one.

Dr. John Creaux is a bona fide American treasure—a long-time survivor of dope addiction who has gone on to boogie woogie his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and be awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Tulane University, whose president jokingly referred to him as Dr. Dr. John. But I for one couldn’t care less about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—what matters to me is that I can turn to Dr. John when I’m feeling down and be brought back up by his unique brand of voodoo magic. This is good hoodoo, the best sort of hoodoo—the kind that can bring you back from the dead, and not as a zombie either.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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