During the most recent KPFK fundraiser I used Dr. John’s fantastic brand new album Locked Down and that made me realize that despite my deep and abiding love for the music of Mac Rebennack as Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper, I’d never posted any of his albums on this blog. While all of his late 60s/early 70s material is exceptional, I think this album, his fourth as Dr. John featuring unassuming guest appearances from Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, was his most consistent. The prior three records are all recommended, and all have striking and unique moments, but this record, to my ears at least, is the one that best incorporates the various aspects of the Dr. John persona and sound which makes it the most listenable album of those early years.
Even though it technically starts off side two, I always think of “Familiar Reality-Opening” as the beginning of the album. Perhaps it’s because of that NOLA-drenched drum break that begins the track courtesy of John Boudreaux, but it also must be because of the way the sentiment of the song seems to link together all the other tracks on the LP, particularly the more endearing tracks like “Where Ya At Mule,” “Craney Crow” and “Pots on Fiyo.”
As the last album (at least until this year’s Locked Down) to prominently feature the “Night Tripper” witch doctor persona, perhaps it’s not surprising that “Zu Zu Mamou” stands as one of Dr. John’s best voodoo tracks. From those opening sorrowful horn sounds to the locked in hypnotic rhythm to Dr. John and the backup singers running down the story of a voodoo woman who seems to have crossed the wrong person and lost her mind, the song not only grooves heavy but it also has this otherworldly unsettling quality (those final whispered lines about having ‘snakes in my legs’ and ‘eggs in you head’ creep me out to this day). Inexplicably this song shows up in 1987′s Angel Heart, a film set in 1955s New Orleans, in perhaps one of the worst moments in film music suprevisor history. Infinitely more appropriate is this trippy and genuinely creepy video that must have been put together around the time of release but I have no idea where this comes from and who would actually greenlight anything this tripped out:
My favorite on this album, and one of my all-time favorites from Dr. John (only “Glowin’” from Babylon ranks higher) is “Black John The Conqueror.” There a real kind of stateliness to the piano and rhythm, fittingly regal since Black John’s legend is that he was a former prince of Africa sold into slavery, who evaded his masters through his “magic” and trickery. While the song incorporates a number of elements from the folklore, it paints more of picture of an elder on his front porch dispense wisdom to those who will listen. Aside from the voodoo/hoodoo inspired mysticism of it all, I adore the uplifting nature of the message, particularly in the second verse:
He say boy when you get near you’ll see heaven on earth is really here,
Watch your attitude disappear when you realize there’s nothing to fear but fear itself and nobody else can hurt you and nobody else can do nothin’ that you don’t want ‘em to,
Lord the sun, the moon and the herbs is all here, just to call on you,
Aw now the rain gonna fall on you,
But it will make you feel real good when you realize in your heart that all the joy is all on you,
I’m truly happy that Dr. John returned to his “Night Tripper” persona this year, but there is no substitute for the original incarnation on “Gris-Gris,” “Babylon,” “Remedies” and this LP.
p.s. while I was writing this I also stumbled across another video seemingly recorded at the same time as the above one on “Zu Zu Mamou,” this time featuring “Where Ya At Mule,” with Dr. John being led around a junk yard on the back of a mule. This version features different lyrics and what sounds like a slightly different arrangement too. After a little cyber digging it seems this footage came from a short-lived TV show called “Something Else” that ran from 1970-1971 and also featured the Flying Burrito Bros, Phil Ochs and more. It doesn’t appear that the series has made it onto DVD, but someone out there must have the full episode where these clips come from!