N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'udda
Blue Note Records
As befitting Dr. John's New Orleans roots, there's a rather magical, Dorian Gray-esque quality to the sumptuous buffet that is N'Awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'udda. Remarkably, the pied piper of Crescent City boosterism sounds younger and more fully alive on this 18-track collection than his did some three-and-a-half decades ago when the seminal Gris-Gris first introduced us to the crushed-glass magnificence of his howls and growls. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the good Doctor is assisted not only by several dozen of the best singers and sideman his (or any other) part of the world has to offer but also by such welcome guests as Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Cyril Neville, Nicolas Payton and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Beginning and ending with newly-penned originals-the spirited "Quatre Parishe" for openers and the appropriately funereal "I'm Goin' Home" to close-Dr. John fills the middle with reworkings of 16 classics that have contributed to his, and the city's, vibrant legacy throughout the past half-century. In a musical (and sociological) first, he unites three rival Mardi Gras tribes-the Golden Eagles, Mighty Cloud Hunters and Mandingo Warriors-collectively dubbing them the Mardi Gras Indians, for a rendition of the recently minted "Chickee le Pas" that brings exalted meaning to the term funkadelic. Elsewhere, there are sizzling, back-to-back teamings with Staples on the staples "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Lay My Burden Down," a double dose of King on "Hen Layin' Rooster" and "Time Marches On" (also featuring Nelson), a "Such a Much" that demonstrates how seamlessly complementary his and Nelson's voices are and an incendiary "St. James Infirmary" featuring Eddie Bo.
I must confess, though, a special fondness for "I Ate Up the Apple Tree," a biblically themed lullaby that Dr. John used to sing to his kids, here enlivened by the inimitable Newman. The accompanying press release praises N'Awlinz as "the most heartfelt musical love letter the city of New Orleans has ever received." For once, publicist hyperbole is anything but.