Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dr. John

  • Remedies [Atco, 1970] B+
  • The Sun Moon and Herbs [Atco, 1971] C+
  • Dr. John's Gumbo [Atco, 1972] A-
  • In the Right Place [Atco, 1973] B+
  • Desitively Bonnaroo [Atco, 1974] B+
  • Hollywood Be Thy Name [United Artists, 1975] C-
  • Tango Palace [Horizon, 1979] C+
  • The Brightest Smile in Town [Clean Cuts, 1983] B-
  • In a Sentimental Mood [Warner Bros., 1989] B+
  • Goin' Back to New Orleans [Warner Bros., 1992] A-
  • The Dr. John Anthology: Mos' Scocious [Rhino, 1993] ***
  • The Very Best of Dr. John [Rhino, 1995] A
  • Trippin' Live [Surefire, 1997] *
  • Duke Elegant [Blue Note, 2000] Neither
  • Right Place, Right Time [Hyena, 2006] A-
  • Mercernary [Blue Note, 2006] *
  • City That Care Forgot [429, 2008] **
  • Locked Down [Nonesuch, 2012] **
  • Things Happen That Way [Rounder, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Remedies [Atco, 1970]
Although the 17:33-minute "Angola" isn't as onerous as those oppressed by the subject of slave labor claim, I don't expect to play it again myself. But side one is addictive. "Loop Garoo" and "Mardi Gras" and the semisubliminal "dixieland" horns on "What Goes Around Comes Around" say more about this pale-faced weirdo's New Orleans roots and connections than all his gris-gris. And "Wash, Mama, Wash" is a pioneering exploration of the sexual politics of rock and roll. Needless to say, it's also very dirty. B+

The Sun Moon and Herbs [Atco, 1971]
I've never trusted his recipe for voodoo jive. So I'm not surprised that the only tasty song on this recorded-in-London supersession is about gumbo. C+

Dr. John's Gumbo [Atco, 1972]
Given Mac Rebennack's limitations as a songwriter, this selection of tunes that made Bourbon Street jump in the '50s is an ideal showcase for his studio-expert piano and sly, whining, raceless vocal affectations. It has its antiquarian aspect, but if Huey Smith or Allen Toussaint captures more of the spirit of New Orleans they don't do it on any album you can buy in a store. I mean, where else can you hear "Iko Iko," "Blow Wind Blow," "Big Chief," "Mess Around," and "Let the Good Times Roll" without pushing reject? A-

In the Right Place [Atco, 1973]
A meaningful title. Fifteen years ago, sweet-and-dirty New Orleans jive conveyed the same wry rebelliousness that Dr. John's night-tripping hoodoo did ten years later. These days he's purveying fifteen-year-old New Orleans jive himself, last time with his own band and classic songs, this time with a classic band--the Meters--and his own songs. Last time worked better, but producer Allen Toussaint, whose "Life" sounds terrific b/w Dr. John's own rakish "Such a Night," gets this one over. B+

Desitively Bonnaroo [Atco, 1974]
Dr. John does enunciate more piquantly than Frankie Miller or King Biscuit Boy, but this is basically another chance for Allen Toussaint to meet up with a white blues singer and groove all the way to the bank. Not that that's bad--these days it's my favorite subgenre, and this may be the best of them all. Despite the absence of a standout song ("Mos' Scocious" is a great readymade) it's more fun than Right Place, Wrong Time. But it does lean toward the music-is-the-answer fallacy. Toussaint shouldn't write songs putting down those who fill their lives "with money matters"--he's too wealthy. And Dr. John shouldn't sing them--he's too hip. B+

Hollywood Be Thy Name [United Artists, 1975]
In which M. Rebennack's gris-gris jive is revealed unmistakably for the schlock it's always been. Granted, it was often very good schlock, but not on this record--with its in-jokes, its cronyism, its sloppy copies, its fuzzy simulated-club sound. Nadir: the 253rd recorded version of "Yesterday." C-

Tango Palace [Horizon, 1979]
"Keep That Music Simple" is the good dr.'s prescription for cracking "the big Top 10." It was released as a single. It stiffed. C+

The Brightest Smile in Town [Clean Cuts, 1983]
By playing the preserver of New Orleans piano tradition, the Dr. does an injustice to his equally fertile heritage as a music-biz sharpie, and too often on his second unaccompanied mostly-instrumental album he's as pleasant and boring as any other session man doing his thing. The new Pomus-Rebennack tune that kicks off side two raises hopes of a half save--until he stops singing again. B-

In a Sentimental Mood [Warner Bros., 1989]
What a great gift idea--Stardust for r&b weirdos who find Willie Nelson prosaic. Anything but straight, the ivory-tickling second-liner raids the pop songbook for hipper material than the richer outlaw, and has such a great time with Rickie Lee Jones you're sorry she has to leave--especially since his vocal poetry does wander on its own. B+

Goin' Back to New Orleans [Warner Bros., 1992]
Seems dead in the water, a foregone conclusion waiting to happen. A cleaned-up Dr. consorts with Warner jazz guys and a numerically big band to erect "a tribute to the music of my hometown"--not his first, and hardly his last. Yet it seldom stumbles, not even when a femme quartet led by the distaff half of Shirley & Lee warbles the chorus of "Good Night Irene"--which, the Dr.'s expansive notes notwithstanding, wasn't written by Leadbelly at Angola Penitentiary or anywhere else (he adapted it much earlier from an 1880s minstrel tune by a biracial NYC duo, and that's what I love about the South). Rarely has the Dr. sung with more gusto, especially on the four comic songs about murder, infidelity, or both, and his cockamamy notion of hitching a gris-gris chant to a Louis Moreau Gottschalk composition sets a properly improbable mood. "Fess Up" is one of his trickiest Roy Byrd rips ever. Two Jelly Roll Mortons is about right. Even "Since I Fell for You" kind of fits. A-

The Dr. John Anthology: Mos' Scocious [Rhino, 1993]
takes his respectable period seriously ("Morgus the Magnificent," "Wash, Mama, Wash") ***

The Very Best of Dr. John [Rhino, 1995]
Mac Rebennack was a studio musician for a full decade before launching his Night Tripper hustle, and that doesn't count the two years he spent in stir. Then and later, monkey perched perpetually on his back, he wrote a whole lot of songs, and too many of them are hackwork. Even on the two-CD Mos' Scocious the writing becomes a problem. But with one or two exceptions, this CD never lets up, epitomizing his biz-wise mastery of rhumba boogie and the second line. The two pop hits lead. The gris-gris tracks are songs not shtick. The three selections from Gumbo don't come near to exhausting it--couldn't expect him to pass up the wickedest "Junko Partner" ever recorded or the touchstone "Tipitina," which re-emerges in his whiskey-piano dash through Joe Liggins's "Honeydripper." And if you consider it suspicious that he chooses to climax with the same song that climaxed a dubious concept album three years before, see above. A

Trippin' Live [Surefire, 1997]
For James Booker and Roy Byrd ("Tipitina," "Kin Folk"). *

Duke Elegant [Blue Note, 2000] Neither

Right Place, Right Time [Hyena, 2006]
This 1989 Tipitina's set is so enjoyable that at first you might assume every song is another "Wang Dang Doodle" or "Such a Night." Instead, four of the nine are very obscure and fairly generic: "Traveling Mood," which the witch dr. first borrowed from Snooks Eaglin in 1973, anti-domestic "Kinfolk" and anti-woman "Black Widow," and the best of them on the merits, "Renegade," a gangsta number Mac Rebennack cooked up with Gerry Goffin. The merits don't matter much because his interactions with his no-name band are so loose and swinging, and his vocals so projected, never a given in this fetishizer of the New Orleans drawl. Even so, I remain unsure of one word in the phrase "no more sign of this funky-knuckle son of a bitch." A-

Mercernary [Blue Note, 2006]
Johnny Mercer's recyclable songbook, eccentrically stylized and expertly played ("Blues in the Night," "Lazy Bones"). *

City That Care Forgot [429, 2008]
"My friends scuffling with contractors," he notes with nice specificity, and he has much worse Katrina stories to tell ("Say Whut?" "My People Need a Second Line"). **

Locked Down [Nonesuch, 2012]
"For my next trick I will shuck my jive and generalize indignantly over a declarative rock beat" ("Big Shot," "Locked Down") **

Things Happen That Way [Rounder, 2022]
Recorded not long before he died at 77 in 2019, this sounds to me like the most committed album hard-hustling New Orleans piano maestro Mac Rebennack recorded in his last two decades on earth, so figure that he knew he was running out of time and elected to go for it. From "Funny How Time Slips Away" to "Guess Things Happen That Way" there's an elegiac fatalism to these selections younguns may not have it in them to get even when he folds in "Gimme That Old Time Religion," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line": "Well it's all right, even if you're old and gray/It's all right, you still got something to say." A-

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