Sunday, June 6, 2010

Such A Night, Dr. John (1973)

If I don't do it, somebody else will. - Dr. John

Here we are again watching New Orleans in the eye of another storm, this time one that is an unnatural disaster of mammoth proportions and that likely will have consequences as unfathomable as the depths of the ocean floor where the catastrophe lurks. 

As they always do, the musicians of NOLA are responding with everything they've got, and one who's on my radar screen right now thanks to his dazzling appearance performing Such A Night in The Last Waltz is Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. It's not that typical of me to have a wide smile pasted on my face, but there are exceptions to everything. What a sweetheart.  And once again, I knew next to nothing about him, except that he is a contemporary of another local jewel, Allen Toussaint. 

Dr. John came on the Big Easy scene early when as a youth he began hanging around in the recording studios of Cosimo Matassa, who helped put the New Orleans sound on the map and launched many careers. Then a guitarist, Dr. John's constant presence led to his sitting in on the sessions of Professor Longhair and Joe Tex alongside more seasoned musicians such as Red Tyler and Earl Palmer.

Paying his dues all around the Gulf, his guitarist gig was cut short when he intervened in a fight involving a friend and his left index finger was nearly shot off.  Not one to cry over spilt milk, he merely reinvented himself as a piano and keyboard player. In the early 60's the city was reeling under the iron fist of District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was cracking down on anything he deemed to be morally corrupt.  This had a chilling effect on the bar and club scene in town, so many musicians said "westward ho" and repaired to California.  There, Dr. John became a much-sought-after session player. 

Legend has it that Sonny and Cher gave him some free studio time at the end of the sessions he worked on, and in 1968 he cranked out the tracks that became his first album, Gris-Gris, melding the influences of his roots with a bit of California psychedelia. It didn't do at all well at the time, although much later it became the darling of the critics, and today is on Rolling Stone's Best Of ... album list.

It wasn't until 1973 that he hit the jackpot with the mondo-funky Right Place, Wrong Time (produced by Toussaint), and people outside the music industry took notice. For whatever reason, he never gained much momentum from that (Such A Night charted but not as highly), at least not on a mainstream basis.

But he has never been at a loss for friends, and he headed for Houston, where he and the notorious record producer Huey Meaux of SugarHill Studios (the impresario who made Doug Sahm a star with Sir Douglas Quintet) laid down the original recording of the album The Night Tripper (his nickname), which is out of print but available for 14.20 pounds on UK eBay. Meaux also captured tracks that weren't released for decades - first as Dr. John: The Crazy Cajun Recordings and again as Hoodoo: The Collection. (Meaux's vaults became a gold mine from which master tapes were licensed to British labels by his accountants to pay off the debts from his conviction on various drug and sex offenses.) 

Dr. John's musical style is a true gumbo of influences that I don't feel merits the attempt to describe it in a neat little package. It's eclectic and versatile, and often described in terms of voodoo. I don't know what that's supposed to mean. He's had a very uneven career, but over the years, he's written film scores, won Grammy awards, played in front of and behind a long list of rock luminaries, produced and arranged the work of others, been a New Orleans booster and railed against the various injustices it's endured, and has lately become involved in the David Simon HBO series Treme (said Simon, "This guy has the whole history of New Orleans music in his head").

His last album City That Care Forgot, with his band The Lower 911, is a blues beauty. When that was nominated for a Grammy (it won), he said, "If it helps anybody down there to get any of their piss-offedness out, if it helps anybody down there in any way - good.  This is a record I just could not not do. I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't make this record." Doing press in conjunction with a May 17 benefit, Dr. John vented his rage over the current state of affairs in a James Carville-like outburst. One can only imagine what will emerge from him musically in connection with this latest devastation of his beloved home.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stage Fright, The Shape I'm In, The Band (1970)

As is happening a lot these days, I've come late to the party on yet another fixture of my youth - The Band. 

It's totally cliche, but a few weeks ago I was nursing a Labatt Blue in a local honky tonk listening to a friend's band; it was getting late, I was tired and thinking of leaving. But then the opening strains of The Weight wafted into my consciousness - the way they played it, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. Let me tell you, the impact of the individual elements of its nuanced intro are pretty remarkable when they creep up on you like that. It made me sit up and take notice. You rock, Fred!

Then I remembered that I had the DVD of The Last Waltz sitting at home ready for viewing.  I'd never seen it, and truthfully my interest in seeing it was sparked largely by something Richard Thompson said last year on Elvis Costello's Spectacle, where Levon Helm was also a guest. RT said that when Music from Big Pink came out in 1968, roots music was unfashionable, but it showed him and others the way to develop music that had direct ties to one's own culture.

I remember clearly when The Weight came out - it sounded like nothing else out there at the time. Aspects of its musicality were intriguing, both in the singing and the instrumentation, but overall I wasn't pulled into being a Band fan.  That's changed now.  Something about The Last Waltz, which I watched twice, seized hold of me. I wanted all the back story on the group.  I mourned the untimely deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.

I always thought of them as being a Canadian band, and certainly 4/5 of its members were. But the group's provenance came from Elaine, Arkansas, Helms' birthplace not too far from Memphis. Inspired as a very young child by the bluegrass great Bill Monroe, Helm started out on guitar, but the instrument of choice changed when he got a whiff of the drummer in the traveling tent show F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, and Peck Curtis, who drummed for Sonny Boy Williamson.   

Helm, in an interview from The Last Waltz, explained that his middle of the country stomping grounds was where the convergence of bluegrass, country music, blues and show music has a propensity to transform itself into a genre all its own, "if it mixes there with the rhythm and it dances."  He joined up with rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who although Arkansan had found the Canadian club music scene much to his liking and where four other guys from various parts of Ontario - Manuel, Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson - were destined to join in the party.  Hawkins became known for identifying and grooming musical talents in Canada, and various iterations of his band, the Hawks, would be the proving grounds. (This was also the genesis of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band and the great guitarist Roy Buchanan.)

Soon enough they quit Hawkins, wanting to do their own thing with broader musical influences.  Performing as either Levon and the Hawks or the Canadian Squires, they found a following.  In 1964, they released their first single, Leave Me Alone. The ultimate follower, Bob Dylan, heard about them (there are various stories as to how - probably a research project unto itself), and asked them to be his backup band in 1965 as he prepared, in what would set off a firestorm of criticism, to amplify.  Thus the group was in the hot seat when Dylan made his electric debuts on both sides of the pond. Helm had a bad reaction to the hostility that ensued and left the group for a while.

After Dylan's near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, the whole lot of them repaired to Woodstock, New York, in the "Big Pink" house, including Helm. The music they made there was released nearly 10 years later as The Basement Tapes. (Here's You Win Again.)

In 1968, as The Band, they concocted something of their own, what would today be called roots music, the album Music from Big Pink.  So began a not-quite-10-year run as a group of superstars who did music their way. The Last Waltz, while having a questionable focus on Robbie Robertson to the exclusion of the other members, and not nearly enough history for my liking, still was a crash course on a group whose striking vocals and harmonies, proficiency with their instruments and overall panache cannot be denied. 

Although there are any number of songs that could be showcased from their oeuvre - and I have much yet to discover - I've picked one each that's stuck soundly in my head, in honor of their respective late lead singers, Stage Fright (Danko) and The Shape I'm In (Manuel).