Potions from the Good Doctor
The next time you sense evil spirits at the door, light the candles and cue up this spooky and beautiful slice of New Orleans ritual hoodoo. Concocted in 1968 just as psychedelic rock was bubbling over, it is the first appearance of Dr. John the Night Tripper, a cagey alter-ego character of R&B pianist Mac Rebennack, who explains on "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya," that he's "got remedies of every description" for assorted ills, from a mean boss to a cheating lover.
Rebennack drew inspiration from his city's voodoo priests and Mardi Gras Indian tribes, but wasn't interested in anything folkloric. Instead, he conjured a swampy, drug-tinged approximation of a voodoo initiation ritual, complete with solemn processional funk, Afro-Cuban percussion, and mesmerizing chants. Some pieces seem derived from established African dances—"Danse Kalinda Ba Doom" moves at a careening 6/8 clip—and others, most notably "Mama Roux," carry traces of Cuban mambo from the 1950s. Despite Rebennack's talk-growled verses and the air of mysticism, Gris-Gris is hardly an aimless ramble. When the Night Tripper and his band get good and revved, as they do on the steady-rolling "Walk on Gilded Splinters," they transform a simple phrase into head-nodding ritual music. All of the elements click together perfectly—the exotic beats, the trippy echoing vocal ad-libs, and Dr. John's name-checks of his favorite street characters combine into a sound with strange hypnotic powers. It's music that could only have come from New Orleans, that outpost of the spirit world, the only place in America where a greasy-fingered pianist with frogs in his mouth can become a truth bringer, a healer, and a high priest of soul.
Released: 1968, Atco
Key Tracks: "Mama Roux," "Walk on Gilded Splinters"
Catalog Choice: Dr. John's Gumbo; Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack
Next Stop: The Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou
After That: James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard Live!
Book Pages: 237–238