Return of the Gris-Gris Man
Dr. John enters "Anutha Zone"
By Jon Garelick
AUGUST 17, 1998: A first glance at the credits on Dr. John's new Anutha Zone (Virgin/Pointblank) might give fans a quick chill. Is the great New Orleans roots and funk master giving in to pressure to get "hip"? Look at all those UK guest stars. Sure, former mod punk Paul Weller's been selling himself as a soul man for years. But what's with space-rockers Spiritualized, Brit-poppers Supergrass and Ocean Colour Scene, even Primal Scream? Members of all these bands contribute to Anutha Zone -- all worthy in their own right, but what the hell do they have to do with "Iko Iko"? It looks like the type of marketing gimmick record companies use to revive the career of an old lion as he dodders into irrelevance -- one step short of Frank Sinatra's Duets.
But, surprise, it turns out that with even all those Brits in the kitchen, it's still gumbo, not steak-and-kidney pie, that the Doctor's cooking. John Leckie's production gives the album a contemporary edge, as do the players (half was recorded in London at Abbey Road Studios, and half in New York with Dr. John's regular band). But it's somehow more Dr. John than ever. When I talk to Dr. John (who also goes by his given name, Mac Rebennack) over the phone from New York, he says, "I think all of the guys came in with the attitude, like, they ain't going to make it their record with me sittin' in, and they wasn't comin' in to make it my record with them sitting in. It was just: 'Come on and let's play these songs.' "
In fact, the disc marks a return to the classic "gris-gris" style he introduced with the album of that title in 1968, when he billed himself as "Dr. John the Night Tripper" (combining the legend of a 19th-century New Orleans voodoo man with a flip of the Beatles title), spilling out lyrics full of Creole New Orleans patois and slang ("Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya"), invoking pantheistic spirits to the sounds of conga cross rhythms and electric bass, deep spacy grooves that were part New Orleans funk, part Afro-Cuban hoodoo, part space-age jazz.
Dr. John fit right in with the psychedelia of the era, but he had broad, deep roots. He'd been hanging out in New Orleans's legendary R&B studios since he was a teenager, learning patented Crescent City barrelhouse boogie-woogie piano at the feet of its master, Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair. At Ace Records he worked as an A&R man/producer/session guitarist with R&B and rock-and-roll stars like Huey Smith, Frankie Ford, Earl King, James Booker, and Joe Tex. He worked with producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew (best known for his work with Fats Domino), wrote a hit called "Lady Luck" for Lloyd Price. After the tip of his left index finger was shot off in an altercation with a motel manager in Jacksonville, Dr. John switched full-time to piano. Besides making his own records, he was in demand as a session pianist, doing the LA studio scene in the '70s. His biggest hit was the funky 1973 "Right Place Wrong Time" (with Toussaint and the Meters).
These days, Rebennack, though based in New York, is New Orleans royalty, a major draw every year at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, in the pantheon with Toussaint and the Neville Brothers. The music he plays with his band (which usually includes a full horn section) encompasses all manner of American popular music -- jazz, R&B, Afro-Latin, Chicago blues (where he still picks up the guitar occasionally), his own gris-gris funk. Albums like Sentimental Mood (1989) and Afterglow (1995) focused on blues and jazz standards. The excellent Trippin' Live (Surefire; 1997) revisited his own standard repertoire: "Right Place Wrong Time," "Such a Night," and New Orleans standards like "Tipitina" and "Mardi Gras Day."
Anutha Zone opens with a rhapsodic piano introduction -- rich, earthy chords that touch on jazz, the blues, and Stephen Foster. It then slips into "Ki Ya Gris-Gris," a classic Dr. John invocation, marimba, congas, maracas, and insinuating slide guitar percolating over a slow, deep bass groove. In his chicory-smoked voice, Rebennack whispers wiccan-like, "Son of a crow, hawk and a pigeon/Sign of the times/Gris-gris religion." The tempo picks up with "Voices in My Head," where Rebennack strikes an appealing, meditative, conversational style that he maintains for much of the album -- battling the demons in his head. "Sometime my attitude have a attitude/Just the little things make me come unglued," he drawls over the bluesy groove laid down by Supergrass's Gaz Coombes and Mickey Quinn with Portishead drummer Clive Deamer. When that happens, he says, he gives himself a talkin' to and takes "a little short dance on the ceiling."
There's a mix of hipster humor with a serious edge through much of the album and, despite the strong New Orleans party flavor, a spiritual undercurrent. The title track (one of several he wrote with his wife, Cat Yellen) could refer to a brush with death and a rebirth ("Just when I thought the big deal was done/A whole 'nutha zone had just begun"). Hell, in one tune he even addresses God. In his recent autobiography, Rebennack talked about escaping from a decades-long heroin addiction after a life-threatening embolism was discovered in one of his legs -- in short, he got scared straight.
When I mention death to Rebennack on the phone, he says, "Funny you should say that. It's something me and my wife were talking about, right around when we wrote that tune. My first wife had passed away, some friends of both of ours had passed away. I used to be real blasé about death. Today I ain't."
One of the lifegiving properties of Anutha Zone was his encounter with the various guest artists in London, where even the studio-savvy 57-year-old Rebennack was forced to stretch his conception. Paul Weller had covered Dr. John's gris-gris classic "I Walk on Gilded Splinters." In turn, Dr. John had played on Spiritualized's single "Cop Shoot Cop." Other connections were made through touring, or through producer John Leckie. "The Supergrass guys I was familiar with from a TV show I did right before we did Trippin' Live at Ronnie Scott's in London. Supergrass was on that show. And at the rehearsal I was, like, diggin' these cats. I wasn't crazy about what they actually played for the gig -- I mean, it was okay -- but when I heard them at the rehearsal I was thinkin', 'Man, these guys got a little Stax in 'em' " (he's referring to the classic Memphis soul label).
Weller, he says simply, "turned out to be one of the special people in my life." After working with his own crew of regulars, Rebennack found he had to adjust to multiple playing situations. He recalls with affection the day when, pressed for time, he suggested using a click track -- a studio shortcut that helps cue musicians rhythmically when they're overdubbing rather than playing live -- on "I Don't Wanna Know About Evil," a tune Weller had brought in. "Paul got, like, violently pissed off. 'No, man, we're not playing with a click track!' But I convinced him to try it. And then it got worse. He knew that his guys wouldn't play right with it. And at some point we stopped using the click track and it worked. So I learned: hey, this guy knows his guys better than I do, you know? I'm on different turf."
The surprises kept on coming. A horn player with a thick Scottish brogue that Rebennack could barely understand turned out to be "the guy I enjoyed rappin' with most after the date." Damon Minchella from Ocean Colour Scene, who "looked like he was 12 or 15 or somethin' " and came in to fill for a missing bass player at the last minute and "played his ass off." And Portishead drummer Deamer, whom Dr. John associated with programmed drumming and hip-hop mixes rather than live funk. "Then this guy walked in and he ain't nothin' like that. He's, like, a studio drummer!"
Time and again on the sessions, Rebennack -- the feel-good groove merchant who also happens to be a studio ace -- learned to go with the flow. "When I tried to tell Gaz, the guitar player with Supergrass, 'Hey man, do something like this,' it didn't work. Told the bass player, 'Try something like this.' Didn't work. But when I just started getting into the thing and said, 'Well, let's just play and see if we find something,' it worked. And with Jason Pierce and the Spiritualized guys, I knew better than to tell them somethin'. These guys play something different every time they play anyhow! They just do what they do. So I learned: just give some general direction, and what they come up with will surprise me. It won't be nothin' that I woulda thought of, and it will be natural to them. It took me a while being in the studio with each different band to see that."
Perhaps that accounts for the natural, organic feel of the album (I count only one clinker, the Biblical Egyptian exotica tune "The Olive Tree"). It's something you'd expect not from a cross-generational, pan-Atlantic, pan-stylistic studio date but from the tight New Orleans scene, where musicians like Toussaint, the Nevilles, and Dr. John have worked on one another's projects for years, live and in the studio. Rebennack recalls Red Tyler, the esteemed New Orleans sax man and arranger who played in his band for years before he died last year. When Tyler knew he was too ill to make the sessions for Anutha Zone, he recommended jazz baritone Ronnie Cuber, who was familiar with Tyler's charts and could lead the horns. "Red would do stuff like that even at the price of a gig," says Rebennack. "He knew when I had the Goin' Back to New Orleans record out [in 1992], I was losing my drawers, and he said, 'Look Mac, cut your losses; let the horn and percussion sections go. Just go out there with the rhythm section until you make enough to get it back together.' That's friends. That's real New Orleans stuff."
Meanwhile, Rebennack, though he insists he's on no special diet ("My wife won't let me eat after a certain hour," he allows), has lost about 80 pounds, looks better than he has in years, and is playing brilliantly. And he takes inspiration from his contemporaries as well the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan ("I don't know what they're talkin' about," he says of the latter, "but I like it"). "I've been listenin' to Bob Dylan's record [Time Out of Mind] and then hearing him on gigs, and it's like 'Wow, I never heard Bob play that good on a gig in years.' And then I listen to the record and think, 'Son of a bitch, this sounds like the old stuff -- he's probably going to get somebody to cover some of these songs!' So stuff like that -- watching George Foreman fight, or that third baseman, Cal Ripken, play his ass off -- all of that inspires me."
Dr. John plays Harborlights on August 25 with B.B. King and the Neville
Brothers. Call 423-NEXT.
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