Spicy gumbo drowned in treacle


Dr John
Blue Thumb Records through GRP/MCA
Reviewed by Norm Dixon Dr John, born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr in 1941, personifies the musical and cultural treasure trove that is New Orleans. The unique melting pot of disparate influences — African, African American, Native American, Caribbean, French, Spanish, Cajun — that has developed over several centuries has made hothouses for music. It is no accident that New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz.
From a young age, Rebennack absorbed those influences. His father owned a record shop near Dillard University, New Orleans' first black university. "Race" records — blues, jazz, r&b, zydeco — were sold hand over fist as well as Cajun, hillbilly and country records. He listened to those records and the black musicians who dropped by, and the music seeped into his bones. He hung out with the likes of blues great Charles Brown, piano maestro and icon Professor Longhair and jazz composer and trumpeter Doc Pomus. These influences leap out from his guitar, piano and organ playing.
It didn't stop there. Dr John learned voudou, the ecstatic black religion that shelters African beliefs — bought to all parts of the "new world" by enslaved Africans — beneath a facade of Christianity. It is called gris-gris in its Louisiana guise and includes an important contribution of Native American beliefs in the mix. He became a priest, operating a shop and temple in the '70s. Rebennack's adopted persona, "Dr John", comes from a local legend about a Senegalese prince who was abducted and enslaved in Cuba, who later gained his freedom and lived in New Orleans and was persecuted for his voudou beliefs.
Dr John's music evolved to be an exciting mix of blues, r&b, jazz, rock 'n' roll — "Fonk" in Dr John-speak — and the rhythms of voudou and the Mardi Gras, over which he ladles his trademark gruff vocals and "Nawlins" drawl. The best examples are his 1967-68 albums Gris-Gris and Babylon. Dr John's first and last entries into the top 40 were in 1973, when this heady alternative brew struck a chord with the psychedelic generation.
Ever since, Dr John has had a patchy relationship with record companies. Few major labels knew what to do with him when they signed him, and they were rarely able to come to terms with the originality of his work. Like many roots artists, he has many tales to tell of being ripped off and denied royalties he was owed, of producers putting their names, even the names of disc jockeys, as co-writers of his songs.
The tendency of the accountants that run record companies is to try to homogenise the output of "their" artists to the formula they convince themselves sells. As Dr John told Jazziz magazine, record company execs half his age just "look at the graphs and sales figures and catalogue numbers. Do the people in power listen to the music they make their living off?"
It is this ledger-driven conservatism that shapes people's tastes, he insists. "People are so brainwashed to this catatonic music that when they actually hear something with feeling, something that jars them, they freak and split."
Dr John recently signed to GRP, an offshoot of the giant MCA combine. The first results were promising. Television (1994) was a celebration of "fonk" with a rendition of Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falletin' Me Be Mice Elf Again)", uncut gris-gris in "Shadows", and spooky bayou rhythms and ambience on "Witchy Red". There are hip hop and P-Funk references as well as a special appearance by new wave thrash-funkster Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Sadly, the second product of this union, Afterglow, is disappointing. It is an album of standards and tributes to Dr John's musical mentors Charles Brown, Doc Pomus and Louie Jordan, as well as some appealing blues.
But this potentially tasty gumbo has been smothered with too-slick, too-perfect, too-sweet big band arrangements. Thankfully, Dr John is no Sinatra or Harry Connick Jnr, so why lumber him with lush, treacly charts that belong in the glitter and schmalz of Las Vegas, not old New Orleans? Afterglow is not a bad record — Dr John himself has expressed satisfaction with the result — but it is a tame, conservative record. I might be wrong but I detect the influence of the whiz-kid record company bean counters at work in this one.
Anybody wishing to discover a more representative sample of the work of Dr John should consider getting hold of the recently released two-CD anthology Mos' Scocious (Rhino).

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