Doctor, Heal Thyself
Ever since his debut album in 1969, Dr. John has been the best-known and most commercially successful champion of classic New Orleans music. Whether it was Gris Gris’ voodoo night trippin’ or Gumbo’s renditions of classic Crescent City R&B, the man has proven himself to be an honest and gifted keeper of that magical city’s musical flame. The good Doctor’s best work is able conjure up the mythic N’awlins of so many fantasies, and a wild imagination drapes itself over the much of the music on The Best of the Parlophone Years like Spanish moss on an old oak tree. But where his best work has been the product of his own abiding love for the city he calls home, too much of this album sounds like the product of talents that have only ever inhabited a New Orleans of the mind.
Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than on the songs culled from 1998’s Anutha Zone. The aforementioned album, recorded in London, had Dr. John backed by various members of the English rock big leagues. On his legendary early albums (and frequently to this day in his live performances) Dr John serves up the laid back, good time funkiness New Orleans is known for—with relatively little adornment. But on the Anutha Zone tracks, studio tinkerers like Jason Pierce of Spiritualized and modfather Paul Weller put way too much effort into the ear candy while overlooking the fact that it’s the performance that makes a song funky, not the wah-wah slide guitar placed just so in the mix. Dr. John’s personality is so strong that it demands to be heard of it’s own accord, and not merely as the sonic tool of Englishmen doing their best to recreate the memories they had of hearing I Walk on Gilded Splinters for the first time.
Perhaps the Doctor has spent too much time trying to please people eager to exploit his presence, because even apart from the London tracks, the album suffers from too many signifiers without any signifyin’. Sure, a song like Marie Laveau, from 2004’s N’awlins - Dis Dat Or D’Udda, has eerie strings and a chorus of sexy female voices being slowly led by that inimitable southern hipster drawl, but it all sounds too perfect, too arranged. The song (and too many others like it) feels like the soundtrack to a Magical New Orleans ride at Disney World. The album is a fun listen, but it’s not dusted with gris-gris like the true best that Mac Rebennack can do. For a man whose classic albums are jiving marvels of a New Orleans that may or may not have ever existed, it’s a sorry fact that his most recent recorded performances utilize him only in the manner of a character actor.
There are a few tracks on the album, e.g., Hen Layin’ Rooster (which features B.B. King and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown) and Lay My Burden Down (with Mavis Staples and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) where the intoxicating juju of the authentic New Orleans is impossible to resist, but on the whole, if you want to fall under the spell of the city that at it’s best can seem so beautifully out of place and out of time, you’d be best advised to either pick up one of his early albums or catch him in person and leave The Best of the Parlophone Years to the tourists and actors.