CD Review: Dr. John – The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974

CD Review: Dr. John – The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974
Omnivore Records
All Access Rating: A-

Dr. John - The Atco/Atlantic
Singles 1968-1974 2015
All of America's confounding contradictions are laid bare in Dr. John's "The Patriotic Flag Waver," the mono version of which appears on a new compilation, from Omnivore Recordings, of the New Orleans icon's best-loved music titled The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974.

Set to martial drums, some light acoustic guitar strumming and a playful, slightly off-key children's choir singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the beautifully messy, spoken-word reading perfectly encapsulates – without judgment – the cultural and socio-political idiosyncrasies of a country that aspires to greatness and often falls short. Given the current divisiveness over race, religion and any number of hot-button topics that drive people into a frothing rage these days, the song – guileless and honest, to a fault – couldn't possibly be more relevant.

This well-curated collection, complete with insightful and reverential penned liner notes by musicologist Gene Sculatti, gathers together both the A- and B-sides Dr. John recorded for Atlantic's labels during a stretch of particularly inspired work. Revisiting "The Patriotic Flag Waver" – a history lesson that sounds like a distant echo or a recovered memory in mono – is, in and of itself, a rewarding and thought-provoking journey through the nation's checkered past. Still, that's just one of heady intoxicants in a 22-song survey that, while less than comprehensive, serves as an ecumenical worship of an artist and the music of his native home, and a serious lesson in the musical lexicon and history of The Big Easy.

An easy stroll through the diverse sounds of the Bayou, the music of Dr. John is a melange of swampy R&B, jazz, psychedelia, pop, funk, rock 'n' roll and whatever else happens to be trolling through the backstreets of New Orleans blowing sun-dappled, dewey horns. Like a more languorous and soulful Tom Waits, he slinks down Tin Pan Alley in the jazzy, minstrel shamble of "Jump Sturdy" and shuffles through the subdued, engaging R&B of "Mama Roux." However, darkness and danger are present in the mysterious murk of "I Walk On Gilded Splinters" Parts I and II and the sinister "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya," as a creepy Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, declares himself to be "known as the night tripper" over rolling drums, with hypnotic, zombie-like vocals swaying and moaning as if caught in a voodoo trance.

A Grammy winner six times over, Dr. John is a soulful singer and a wickedly clever keyboardist, his great feel for the material and what it needs always apparent, whether he's shaping the slinky grooves of "Loop Garoo" and the smash hit "Right Place Wrong Time," or laying back and playing it cool on a breezy "Wash Mama Wash." He makes the electric-piano boogie of "Wang Dang Doodle" seductively bounce and gyrate across the dance floor, while the summery "Such A Night" twinkles and sashays under the stars, the high-stepping energy of "Iko Iko" exudes light and "A Man Of Many Words" – where Dr. John is joined by Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy – gets lost in deep, bluesy reflection.

Protective of its traditions, but not inextricably bound to them, Dr. John is a New Orleans institution, an almost mythical figure ingrained in the old, decaying fabric of a haunted city. Among the producers, writers and arrangers he's rubbed elbows with are sainted names like Clapton and Guy, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler , Allen Toussaint, Willie Dixon. Even among such esteemed company, Dr. John – his slightly raspy voice a cocktail that brings on a drowsy buzz all by itself – stands out, his outsized personality and reputation for wildly theatrical performances matched only by the singular character of a place unlike anywhere else. To find the real Dr. John, wander through The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 and then seek out the rest of his catalog. It's easy to fall under the spell of the Night Tripper.
– Peter Lindblad

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