Dr John- Going Back to New Orleans

I have something of a confession here, although I was very familiar with the name Dr. John and knew the style of music he performs, until a few months ago I had heard very little of his material. I’d heard the odd track here and there, the number which really stuck in my head was a track he performed with British Jazz trombonist Chris Barber called Take Me Back to New Orleans but other than that I’d never really listen to him. Well determined to correct that I purchased this album and the cover depicting Dr. John (who does look somewhat like comedian Bill Bailey) in Mardi Gras regalia pretty much tells you what to expect. The album dates from 1992 and was released on the Warner Brothers label.

The opening track, Litania des Saints is an interesting choice for an opening number as it does capture the mix of music influences in New Orleans, it has a distinct gospel feel with its choral opening but develops into something more exotic as the strings kick in and the rhythm becomes far more Latin. The number is something of a medley of the works Louis Moreau Gottschalk, one of the first US classical composers to use folk themes. While the lyrics are an odd mismatch of Creole French and Spanish it adds to the almost Caribbean feel of the number and to me brings back many happy nights of entertainment in Cuba and Margarita.

 

The second track is far more traditional ground for Dr. John which is the old blues number Careless Love, on this occasion Dr. John paraphrases the lyrics from various versions of the song as they have been developed many times over the years. Composer credit is assigned to W.C. Handy but I have a feeling this originates from a Negro spiritual/folk number. The laid back arrangement of the tune suits John’s casual vocal style and he compliments the lyrics with little flourishes on the piano. The lyrics of the song ring as true today as they did when they were originally written, although I suspect picking up a shotgun to shoot his partner would now be conceived as misogynistic now and rightly so.

The Mardi-Gras theme comes to the forth with the third track “My Indian Red”, with catchy percussion rhythms filling the air ways and joyful horn play carrying on the party theme. The down side and one which continues on the album is that from now on the mix is somewhat badly presented with the vocals lost to low in the music.

 

Following up these are two pieces from the first important composer in Jazz history, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton with “Milenburg Joys” and “I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say”. The former has become quite a jazz standard covered by many bands in the New Orleans revivalist movement and a very good big band version by Tommy Dorsey. The mardi gras theme is continued with the honking horns and the echoes of barrel house piano performed by John, no doubt it is reflective of the style of music presented by Jelly Roll Morton in the various house of ill-repute he started his music career out in. The second Morton number is based on a New Orleans number called Funky Butt and immortalises the fabled first Jazz trumpet improviser Buddy Bolden. The lyrics have been slightly modified and updated to reflect that the band could not possibly of heard any of the people Morton mentions in the original song, but re-interpret it to make reflect the idea of an series of urban myths. The number opens beautifully with a trombone passage by Bruce Hammond and the lyrics are shared with Danny Barker who also plays Guitar on the track.

 

Basin Street Blues is a much more Dixieland Jazz arrangement and does sit a little oddly with the surrounding tracks but I guess it does capture the pallet of music New Orleans. This is immediately followed by a New Orleans funeral dirge called “Oh Didn’t He Ramble”, which captures the spirit of a New Orleans funeral and just reinforces my view that when I shuffle off this mortal coil, that is how I want to be sent off. It is both mournful of the person passing and celebratory of their life which is the way I feel funerals should be.

 

The next couple of tracks have a good feel of Rhythm and Blues and Mardi Gras but are let down by the vocals disappearing into the mix so I’m going to jump ahead to the track “Cabbage Head”. Now this appears to have its roots more folk music rather than blues, the lyrics are quite country bumpkin orientated here as a case in point. But, the general lyrics and story song is shared by an Irish folk song called the “Seven Drunken Nights” where our singer returns home every night completely pissed up and comes across small signs of evidence that his wife his having an affair but is frequently put back in place by his wife who rationalises what he has seen. I think it works better with the idea of the male being drunk rather than tired from a hard day’s labour, as it would make more sense to think the wife could get away with her explanations.

 

Overall, the album has a good feeling of both blues, Latin and mardi gras and will keep you feet tapping to the many rhythms presented within but the mix down of the vocals lets the album down somewhat. Still at least the various instrument solos are giving a good clean showcase. Six out of Ten.

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