This reviewer can distinctly remember the static-laden, AM radio groove of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” back in 1973. This song was a clinic in chic R&B production, from its synthesized opening keys to the thumping bass line and compressed horns. Sonically it was well ahead of its time. And the title was woefully prophetic of the career of its creator. Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John Creaux, has been engaged in the music business for over four of his six decades, but he has never quite been in the right place to reap widespread popularity.
Part of the fault lies with Dr. John himself. The flamboyant persona he invented has kept him from being taken very seriously by blues and R&B purists. In the early days he often mounted the stage in Mardi Gras regalia, directing on-stage antics that contradicted the pathos of his music. On an edition of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (taped sometime in the early ‘70s) Dr. John literally coughed and choked his way through a performance that could have been used to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking. And despite his reputation as a seasoned musician—especially as a pianist—Dr. John’s albums have been occasionally marred by a certain degree of stylistic inconsistency. Though fundamentally the purveyor of New Orleans “voodoo” blues, he was prone to venture into West Coast psyche-funk. It was gumbo with the chicken bones and innerds included. Such is the case with this particular collection.
The first seven tracks of Hoodoo are thoroughly entertaining, opening with the poignant “The Time Had Come.” Immediately we are introduced to that distinctive voice that would have been right at home with Charley Patton in the late ‘20s. Dr. John’s vocal style is comparable to that of Gregg Allman, only grittier and yet more winsome. “Shining As Hard As I Can” displays the artist’s wit, as he converses with the Lord about his effort to “rise and shine,” though the smog won’t let him. He sings, “don’t won’t to see people coughin’ to their coffin,” an ironic twist given the acute upper respiratory episode noted above. The gospel-based “A Little Closer To Home” is this album’s best cut, with its affirmation that this earth is not a place fit to be called home. And “Make Your Own” ends with a brilliantly nervous piano flourish reminiscent of Skip James.
But then we are invited to the party at least a half dozen times on “Bring Your Own Along,” a droning blues mantra a la Grateful Dead that goes nowhere real fast. At the end of the track Dr. John exhorts his harmonica player, but the mix is so muddy we can’t hear the hapless instrument until the fade out. “Somebody Tryin’ to Hoodoo Me” nearly salvages the latter half of the album, featuring signature spooky, minor register work. Alas, the rest of the disc is a rehash of somewhat cliche conventions, and Dr. John’s voice becomes scratchier. In addition, the overall sound quality of this collection leaves something to be desired.
At his best, Dr. John is a New Orleans stylist with a voice that, in another time, could have set juke joints ablaze. However, while Hoodoo is full of roux it’s short on mojo, so this collection is a toss up. His most ardent fans will probably enjoy this, but others would do better to acquire earlier LPs such as Gris-Gris (1968) and In the Right Place (1973).
// Notes from the Road
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