Posts Tagged ‘ New Orleans ’

In Memoriam Dr. John 1941-2019

Dr. John was a gateway artist to me. While discovering the musical traditions of New Orleans, Dr. John was just “rocky” enough to have any sort of appeal on the staunch hardrocker I was at the time. By mixing the New Orleans jazz tradition with the funk DNA of the town and some psychedelic rock grooves, Dr. John basically had something for fans of all genres. His sleazy voice and jumpy, slightly Carribean piano parts immediately recognizable, while the dangerous voodoo-inspired, vibe in some of his tracks is still as hypnotizing today as it was in the late sixties. Malcolm John Rebennack, as was his real name – “Mac” to his friends – died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 77.

New Orleans royalty

As I’m quite sure was the case for many white rockers, my first time hearing Dr. John was his solo debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ from 1968. The album can be downright weird at times, but I was intrigued from the first notes right down until the last. The seductive grooves of ‘Mama Roux’ and the irresistible darkness of ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ never wear off their welcome and I can’t be the only one who feels like that, as the latter is among one of the most covered non-traditional songs from Louisiana.

Before that album was released, however, Rebennack already made quite a career as a musician. Originally aspiring to be a professional guitar player, he was shot through the ring finger of his left hand in 1960 and eventually settled on the piano as his main instrument. His style was clearly influenced by another New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, but he ran with it and sort of modernized the style without forsaking any of the swing and looseness that makes New Orleans jazz and funk so typical that it really can only be made in that particular area. He would appear on many records as a session musician before embarking on his solo ventures.

Throughout the seventies, Rebennack released one great record after the other. His 1973 album ‘In The Right Place’ in particular was a gathering of New Orleans royalty, with The Meters backing him and Allen Toussaint producing. The record, and the powerful single ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ in particular, was when he crossed over to the mainstream. It was hardly his only good song of the decade though; ‘Loop Garoo’, the lengthy ‘Angola Anthem’, ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Qualified’ are just a few of the masterpieces he released that decade, while ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) is one of the most exuberant celebrations of New Orleans’ musical history ever released.


While the eighties were unkind to almost anybody not playing synth pop or metal, Rebennack kept on releasing music that though not as inspired as his seventies work was enjoyable enough. In the meantime, there were session gigs he gladly joined. His return to form came in 1992, however, with ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’. An effort comparable to ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ twenty years prior, the album focuses on what New Orleans has to offer musically, from the gorgeous classical roots of the Gottschalk tribute ‘Litanie Des Daints’ to the standards ‘Carless Love’ and ‘Goodnight Irene’, the latter in a surprisingly bombastic rendition. The title track, Rebennack’s interpretation of a Joe Liggins tune, is a horn-heavy masterpiece.

Since that album reconnected him to his essence, Rebennack kept frequently releasing records, some of which are nothing short of incredible. In fact, not too long ago, ‘Locked Down’ (2012) introduced him to a whole new audience by teaming up with The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach. The album is sort of an update of his seventies formula, including career highlights like ‘Big Shot’, ‘My Children, My Angels’ and the title track, with a big shot of psychedelic rock. Those who followed Rebennack’s career would not have been surprised though, as he had shared amazing albums like ‘Tribal’ (2010) and ‘The City That Care Forgot’ (2008) not too long before his Auerbach collaboration.

On Rebennack’s 73rd birthday, I was fortunate enough to see him live with his band. Not a perfect show by any means; the band was almost too loose and trombone player Sarah Morrow hogging the spotlight got on my nerves after a while. Also, it was obvious that the Doctor was not in the best physical shape anymore. His musical feeling did not suffer even the slightest bit, however, with especially his improvisational skills being impressive without being too ostentatious. Clearly a natural musician at work.

According to his own words, Dr. John leaves behind “a lot of children”. My condoleances go out to them. What he also left behind is an impressive body of work that deserves to be celebrated.

Album of the Week 29-2017: The Meters – Rejuvenation

Within the funk idiom, The Meters are the prime representatives of the New Orleans sound. Not as angrily defiant as James Brown, not as dirty as the Ohio Players and not as crazy as Parliament-Funkadelic, the band focused on swinging, relatively relaxed grooves, which landed them a job as the backing band of New Orleans greats like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Their own material is worth hearing as well though. ‘Rejuvenation’ is their first album without any instrumentals, which were part of their charm, but the record is so full of inspired grooves and memorable melodies that it hardly matters.

On their first three albums, The Meters specialized in laid-back funk grooves, often making their songs sound like they belong on the soundtracks of one of the Blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. The shift to predominantly vocal tracks on this album’s predecessor ‘Cabbage Alley’ may have raised some eyebrows at the time, but it is a fact that ‘Rejuvenation’ is full of excellent songs, some of which – most prominently the typical New Orleans rhythm of ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ – sound like they could have been on one of their earliest records, except that these songs feature singing.

At other times, ‘Rejuvenation’ features the band leaning heavily towards more contemporary funk. Opening track ‘People Say’ has a suprisingly propulsive, stomping beat that nods strongly towards the harder funk that was gaining popularity at the time, while ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ is as close as The Meters ever came to the slinky, sexy grooves of the Ohio Players. ‘Jungle Man’ and the excellent closing track ‘Africa’ are great examples of the band adapting the sparse, prominent grooves of Sly & The Family Stone to their New Orleans background and bridging the gap between several types of funk in the process.

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the massive, 12 minute track ‘It Ain’t No Use’. This masterpiece of a song starts out like a blues track with some excellent stinging guitar fills by Leo Nocentelli, which are strongly reminiscent of Clapton during his best days in Cream. Art Neville’s passionate vocals are incredible as well. After the more song-oriented part is out of the way, a long, inspired funk jam starts, during which every member gets a chance to shine. Especially the rhythm section of drummer Ziggy Modeliste and bassist extraordinaire George Porter Jr. is beyond incredible here. Its jamtastic nature makes it stand out from the relatively concise material on ‘Rejuvenation’, but that’s not a problem.

‘Rejuvenation’ is the ultimate proof that The Meters could handle any kind of funk. As such, it is one of the most versatile and varied funk records released to date, as its styles range from the highly poppy ‘Loving You Is On My Mind’ all the way to the hard driving ‘Africa’. And The Meters tackle all of these styles with equal enthusiasm and inspiration. The album is definitely where the musicianship and the songcraft of The Meters is in perfect balance. Which is great, because as much as I love their contributions to the records of all these New Orleans legends, making their own music is really what The Meters do best.

Recommended tracks: ‘It Ain’t No Use’, ‘Africa’, ‘Jungle Man’

Album of the Week 48-2015: Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights

Two and a half weeks ago, one of the few true legends of music still alive passed away. Allen Toussaint almost single-handedly created New Orleans’ R&B sound and though he is primarily known as a composer, arranger and producer, he made a couple of excellent records under his own name. The two records he released when signed to Reprise, ‘Life, Love And Faith’ and ‘Southern Nights’, are nothing short of spectacular. The latter is sort of a mission statement for Toussaint. And a masterpiece of masterfully crafted, laidback, Jazzy New Orleans Funk. A record that belongs in any music collection.

As if the music itself wasn’t enough, one look at the credits reveals an all-star cast of New Orleans’ finest musicians. Most notably: The Meters. Not that the horns have no significance to the sound on ‘Southern Nights’, but the rhythmic backing of The Meters really brings the laidback Funk groove in Toussaint’s compositions to life. The master’s own piano playing and surprisingly understated – for a genre known for its outrageousness – vocal performance confirm the distinct Toussaint signature of the compositions. Even when he experiments with keyboards or effects, there’s no mistaking who we’re dealing with here.

Of course, the key moment on ‘Southern Nights’ is its title track. It would become a hit for Glen Campbell not much later, but the original with its lush keyboard arrangement and flanged vocals is the ultimate version. The atmosphere is unparallelled. It’s also interesting to hear how the song slowly reveals itself through several interludes before it actually begins. The slow reveal is part of the entire album’s charm: you’ll have to hear the seemingly simple Funk of opening track ‘Last Train’ a couple of times before you actually realize how complex the song really is.

In a way, ‘Southern Nights’ is quintessentially seventies: R&B records used to be collections of singles in the sixties, but this album has a few deep cuts that are even more impressive than its better known inclusions. ‘You Will Not Lose’, for instance, which builds upon a jumpy melody and bass line that truly enforces the positive message of the song. Closing track ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’ is extremely moving with its slow groove and desperate Blues feel, while ‘Worldwide’ stands out due to its Funky stomp, Boogie feel and awesome dual lead vocals. ‘Country John’ and ‘Basic Lady’ are nice and funky, while ‘Back In Baby’s Arms’ is a lesson in how to work toward a climax.

Everyone who is interested in Toussaint’s work as a producer and songwriter will have to listen to ‘Southern Nights’ and ‘Life, Love And Faith’ at least once in their lives. The – very pleasant – risk is that you’ll end up listening to it more than once, because both in terms of performance and composition, this is top notch material. ‘Southern Nights’ is a work of art by someone who has found a style of his own that he’s very comfortable with and has set out to make the best possible work within that style. It doesn’t matter if you like Jazz, Soul, Blues or Funk: they’re all represented here in an irresistible manner.

Recommended tracks: ‘Southern Nights’, ‘You Will Not Lose’, ‘Worldwide’, ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’

In Memoriam Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

Some people have so much influence on a musical scene that they have become the personification of that scene. Allen Toussaint is that personification of New Orleans music. Though he was a fine singer and musician in his own right, he is primarily known for writing and producing the work of many icons of New Orleans R&B. And although a heart attack sadly took his life at age 77 earlier this week – while on tour – Toussaint will live on through the enormous amount of highly influential and top quality recordings he has been involved with.

But it wasn’t just his output that made Toussaint what he was. His stately appearance – always suited up and with a calm charisma – and endless musical knowledge has made him the high priest of New Orleans music almost litterally. In interviews, for instance in the Foo Fighters’ documentary series ‘Sonic Highways’, it’s impossible not to hang on to his every word and when you see him working as an arranger, you can see an almost worship-like reverence in the eyes of the musicians working with him.

As a songwriter – either using his own name or one of his parents’ – and a producer, Toussaint has been responsible for either kickstarting or revitalizing the careers of the likes of seminal Funk group The Meters, Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas, genre-bending mastermind Dr. John and the town’s most musical family The Neville Brothers. Not much later, many popular artists from outside of the Crescent City – The Band, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney to name a few – requested his magic, usually (though not exclusively) through his impeccable horn arrangements.

Earlier in this century, the terrible devastation of hurricane Katrina also caused Toussaint to reawaken his musical career. He recorded solo and with Elvis Costello, did the horn arrangements for the debut record of ardent admirer Hugh Laurie and – most notably – played live more than ever. He was introduced to a wider audience when he appeared in the HBO series ‘Treme’. At the time of his death, he had just finished playing a concert in Madrid, Spain.

When you think of New Orleans, you think of Allen Toussaint. This simple fact is nothing more than logical; Allen Toussaint was a remarkable man and his work is legendary. Not many artists achieve immortality through their legacy, but Toussaint has done just that. During his lifetime already. Several of his songs have become part of the fabric that his city is made of. I’d like to close this in memoriam with what is probably the best tribute to New Orleans, to honor the memory of a musical genius.

Album of the Week 47-2014: Dr. John – Goin’ Back To New Orleans

While a lot – if not all – of Dr. John’s albums are a celebration of all things New Orleans, nowhere else is the tribute to his musical heritage nearly as obvious as it is on the two collections of New Orleans classics known as ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) and these fantastic recordings from two decades later. In a way, the album is also sort of an artistic reawakening for Dr. John after a somewhat unproductive decade. No matter how you view ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, it’s an enjoyable listen. If only because of the celebratory nature and spirited performances by every musician involved.

Part of what makes the album work so well is that the Doctor is working with some veterans of the scene, including Danny Barker, Al Hirt and the Neville Brothers. The chemistry is alive and well throughout ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’; it’s obvious that everyone involved had the shared enthusiasm for bringing new life to these New Orleans classics. That spirit would be reason enough to go out and buy this record immediately, but it’s also clear that Dr. John put a lot of effort into selecting a range songs and thinking of the order in which they worked best. That alone warrants the presence of eighteen tracks.

Amongst the tracks selected are traditionals that have been done by everybody, such as ‘Careless Love’ and a particularly swinging version of ‘Goodnight, Irene’ – have you ever heard that song with such awesome horns? – there are also a few less predictable inclusions. The album opens with the very atypical ‘Litanie Des Saints’, Dr. John’s tribute to classical composer Gottschalk. The song has a classical vibe to it, but there’s also something African and something Caribbean to the rhythms. It took some time getting used to it, but it quickly became one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard.

Other highlights include ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’ with its exciting vibe, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say’, which has a vocal cameo by Danny Barker, who actually knew Buddy Bolden, and the cynical Blues of ‘How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Around’ with the Doctor himself ad-libbing brilliantly near the end. However, the perfect closing statement is the title track. The horn arrangement just pops, the choirs by the Neville Brothers are exuberant and the Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano parts make even me want to get up and dance. Joe Liggins’ original is amazing, but this is the ultimate version of the song.

Dr. John’s New Orleans class is complete with his extensive liner notes, in which he explains the history of the songs he’s tackled here and whose versions inspired him most. It accompanies the music perfectly and makes the album so much more than just another album by the musical genius that is Dr. John; it makes ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ sort of an archive release by an enthusiast who wants people to learn as much about the vast musical history of New Orleans as possible. But even when you approach this as “just an album”, it’s an incredibly enjoyable one with a very long lasting impact. A must for any music fan.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, ‘Litanie Des Saints’, ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’

Album of the Week 42-2014: Dr. John – Locked Down

For the white psychedelic Rock generation, Dr. John was the professor of New Orleans music history. His revolutionary ‘Gris-Gris’ (1968) and even moreso his record full of New Orleans traditionals ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) introduced a whole new generation of musicians not commonly associated with the town to the exuberant music and the mysterious rituals of The Crescent City. One of those – admittedly at a later time – was The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Locked Down’ and plays guitar on it. The doctor himself sounds as convincing as always on this collection of dark, shimmering grooves and nocturnal melodies.

While Auerbach’s touch is quite distinct in the pseudo lo-fi production of the album, the brilliance of the material is very much a collaborative achievement of Dr. John and his backing band. Bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Max Weissenfeldt expertly lay down the earthy, low-key Funk grooves so typical of New Orleans’ rhythmical approach, although the percussion from several band members also contributes to that, and Dr. John’s electric keyboards top the whole thing off. Normally, I would complain about the lack of his unequaled piano playing, but the atmosphere of these compositions just begs for the direction he took for the album.

Between those instruments in the spectrum that is ‘Locked Down’, we find quite a lot of different approaches throughout the album. ‘Big Shot’ is relatively jazzy, with the horns and lingering rhythms pushing the song into fifties territory. ‘Revolution’ is also horn-driven, but much more aggressively funky in its beats. ‘Ice Age’ is carried by a haunting dual guitar harmony and the almost terrifying vocals of the doctor, where the opening title track is primarily built upon Funk riffs and rhythms. ‘Eleggua’ is wordless – but not instrumental – psychedelia and the Gospel track ‘God’s Sure Good’ closes the album in a surprisingly upbeat fashion, but makes perfect sense in context.

Although the album remains consistently impressive all the way through – all of the tracks are diamonds in the rough – there is one song that caught me completely off guard and that’s the subdued dream groove of ‘My Children, My Angels’. Its leading Rhodes piano riff strongly reminds me of my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, with which the song shares its darkness, and Dr. John proves that you don’t have to be Tom Jones in order to send shivers down someone’s spine by singing. Especially the somewhat uplifting – but once again in a subdued fashion – chorus. Simply breathtaking.

‘Locked Down’ rates along ‘Gris-Gris’, ‘Gumbo’ and ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ as Dr. John’s masterpieces in a discography that is consistently amazing anyway. And with his carreer spanning over six decades (counting his early years backing other New Orleans greats), that is nothing short of an impressive achievement. Those who enjoyed the mysterious nocturnes of his debut album will most likely be captivated by this amazing record as well. And for any musician, this should be a lesson in groove.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Children, My Angels’, ‘Ice Age’, ‘Big Shot’