Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No. 143: Gris-Gris

Band: Dr. John
Album: Gris-Gris
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Building off of R&B, psychedelia and his native Cajun music (and a stage show reminiscent of Screamin' Jay Hawkins), Dr. John sculpted this bayou strangeness. With awesome grooves and crazy lyrics, Dr. John is about as weird/great as it gets.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like a lot of "weird" music, it's not easy to digest on first listen.
Best song: "Mama Roux" is fantastic.
Worst song: "Jump Sturdy" isn't great, but it's short.
Is it awesome?: Yes!

Dr. John is neither a doctor nor is his first name John (his middle name is John). He's a piano player from New Orleans. According to Wikipedia, "The name "Dr. John" came from a legendary Louisiana voodoo practitioner from the start of the 19th century."

Apparently, gris-gris (or grigri) is a type of amulet used in Voodoo religious ceremonies. That's exciting, I guess, though a little bit confusing. By all accounts, his concerts were pretty insane. He wore headdresses and performed quasi voodoo-type ceremonies. So... That sounds fun.


Recently, in writing about "The Fountain," Nathan Rabin wrote in an AV Club blog "I found myself thinking 'Wow, I am way too sober to be watching a movie like this'" in writing about Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."

Listening to "Gris-Gris," I feel the same way. I am way too sober to listen to this record. Dr. John is presumably singing in some semblance of English, but if you know what "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya" means, you're a better person than I. I'm not normally one to judge a book by its cover, but take a look at the cover of this record. My first thought was "wow, this is going to be fun."

And, boy, is it.


To say Dr. John is a Cajun version of Captain Beefheart is probably oversimplifying it a little. But, that's the feeling I got in listening to it. AllMusic.com calls the first song a "veritable introduction to this new character," the character being "Dr. John." I tend to not enjoy those sort of "persona" records, but this one is fun. It's an odd mix of psychedelic arrangements, bayou R&B (and not the idiotic CCR nonsense) and straight up blues. The rhythm is a little bit fractured on the song, but it works oddly well, in Beefheart-ish fasion.

If Dr. John meant to make hypnotizing music, he did a great job. The record's best grooves -- "Mama Roux," "Danse Fambeaux" and "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" -- are as good as much of the R&B of the time, only with Dr. John's insanity. "Mama Roux," in fact, features a fantastic Hammond organ pushed to its limits of groove.


This is what I wanted to be doing for this project. I wanted to find music with which I wasn't familiar and enjoy it. I enjoy this. It's not going to the top of any playlist of mine anytime, but it's still a load of fun. Again, a voodoo Beefheart? Sign me up.

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