True to the source and an entirely devoted, walking R&B/rock’n’roll encyclopedia who walked it like he talked it ever since he was in short pants, John Malcolm Rebennack (known aliases: Mac, Dr. John, Dr. John Creaux, The Night Tripper) was so intensely fuelled by a thirst for music and everything else that comprised the freewheelin’, ram-bunk-shus-nus that wuz the renowned, crazy quilt music scene of his hometown of New Orleans that by the early sixties he had already played in a succession of groups as well as writing, producing and arranging countless tracks while simultaneously providing A&R direction for a string of labels from Specialty to Mercury. Dr. John truly had one insatiable thirst on, as though his constant supping from a most plentiful wellspring of rock’n’roll only evaporated instantaneously once it hit his burning musical brain.
Squeezing a little pocket of New Orleans jive out of the confines of Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles in the fall of 1967 (courtesy of the expedient borrowing of unaccounted studio time earmarked for Sonny & Cher) “Gris-Gris” was the culmination of a series of compositions rendered mysterious, dense and quiet all at once. Arranged and produced by Phil Spector sideman/arranger Harold Battiste, Dr. John and his band stirred up a record that reeked of their down home/town with an impeccable stew of R&B, blues and Haitian Hoodoo chants whose locus was the real Fertile Crescent -- Crescent City (New Orleans, that is): that port that alighted upon the open cunt of the Mississippi, whose lips were pursed wide open as though in acceptance of every musical expressions its denizens offered up, while splicing them all into a hybrid form of “jass” (A Creole patois term that translates as both ‘strenuous activity’ and sexual intercourse, itself a derivative from the African ‘jasm’: ‘energy, drive.’ It’s also the root of the slang term ‘jism’ so we’re talking the real McCoy heah and not some lame pop that just sits on its charity ass looking pretty.) As this simmering of styles coalesced they also push towards steamier, celebratory and far looser forms: the driving energy of the jitterbug, the abandon of the second line on Fat Tuesday, jazzing-up the blues with Cajun rhythms and what eventually seeped out was a soulful and perspirational funk of the sweetest kind...and “Gris-Gris” was a culmination of all these forms. Rebennack had initially slated one-time band mate/vocalist Ronnie Barron to front the expansive New Orleans-in-exile aggregation he assembled among his fellow L.A. sessionmen as ‘Dr. John’ but the task inevitably fell back to Rebennack hisself and he’s been dispensing funky ‘scripts ever since.
Unveiling his Louisianan Herbsman persona on his debut album, “Gris-Gris” with groanin’ vocalisin’ and sparse keyboards throughout, the backing band of roughly twenty players created the complete vibe of a late night ritual gathering that was dense though not cluttered and free of constraints as quiet slide guitars, whining mandolin, unison chanting, birdcalls, caws and late night insect whirring wove an infectious nighttime ambience that is all-mysterious, trance-like and primitive as it drapes over the rhythmic percussion backbone. The production forces everything to merge into a zone of present transparency behind the extolling, beseeching and whispering background voices -- yet all is integral to its overall fabric whose weave is as loose as mosquito netting and cool enough to wear on a hot summer night, it’s that sensual and stirring. Like the introductory “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya,” which is more a sleep-walk along forgotten swamp trails while shrugging off the shroud of daylight than a ‘song.’ Dr. John appears in a cloud of smoke, tipping his hat and proffering potions to ward off misfortune and to promote love, happiness and prosperity. The drums rumble in the background alongside snatches of slide guitar, mandolin, intermittent sax and everything else that isn’t the voice of Dr. John’s or the background singers who sway to their slowly rhythmic incantation of ”Gris-gris gumbo, ya-ya...” until it all drops off into a vanishing darkness. “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” kicks off with quietly strummed mandolin until loudly slammed drums, bells and percussion bang down all at once to halt the rhythm in its tracks, as though calling order to the proceedings -- only to recommence at a pace every bit as rollicking into a percussion-based limbo dance with the title chanted feverishly over more bells, congas, various strands of clarinet and hoo-doo knows what else. It will halt a second time even more jarringly, but no one misses a beat, ever, because it is now their life.
Coming up next is “Mama Roux,” a laid-back though up-tempo number still going by at a speed slowed by the sultry air and buoyed up with the heavy-lidded and froggy jive vocals of the good Doctor and it’s all groov-eh. A roux is a staple of Cajun cooking made from fried flour and oil which makes the lyrics even harder to discern, but if you just stick with following the rhythm it’s far more expansive in feeling than any literal translation, anyhoo. “Danse Fambeaux” opens with mandolin-picked filigrees while rocky fragments of electric guitar roughly churn out over the Doctor’s bird calls and their clogged gears start grinding out distended rhythms that only let off steam when Dr. John gets down on all fours, blowing and sucking air out of his cheeks while vocalising opaque words and sounds, directing the band wordlessly. Written by producer Harold Battiste, the instrumental “Croaker Courtbullion” starts side two with a weightlessly swinging arrangement containing jazzy touches to the melody while the massive though quiet percussion embankment clatter in the background. Birds fly right by your ears and it does seem at point as though the entire swamp seems to erupt in response. The percussion lines are going into overdrive at one point while the background singers intone “Brawthur, brawthur goo-bey-uh” repeatedly as though invoking an incestral (sic) god to come right down there and fuse them together into the spirit of one just to keep the track going. Dr. John’s most prominent keyboard playing of the album appears in the form of skeletal and nimble-handled harpsichord, and when it and the clarinet drop out all call and response-like against each other, it’s a groove and a half. “Jump Sturdy” follows with all the pelvic bump and grind of high-steppin’ strutting in broad daylight public. Along with “Mama Roux” from the previous side, it’s one of the more orthodox-sounding tracks of the album but it’s still an alien groove transmitter.
The epic conclusion to the album is “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” and is by far the most supernatural moment of the album that was nothing but: Especially the eerily-familiar-the-first-time-you-hear-it clarinet melody that reappears throughout this insidious snake charming piece. At once becalmed, unsettling, peaceful and disturbing, it’s a multi-faceted track that stretches its Rousseau canvas reality while elements spring to life as they are locked in an ever-encircling dance of life and death and unspoken but suggested disembodiments. Is it sweating in a waking dream trance, half asleep following the trail of shadows...or both? Its mystery will always disappear with the dawn, returning only after nightfall but the spirit of the spell will remain unbroken forever. It continues calmly and sinewy upriver to the end of the night until its quiet collapse on a river bank, stroked by soothing Spanish moss...leaving behind only a shedded skin, feathers and traces of black powder. " (Headheritage)