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Dr. John and the Lower 911: Sippiana Hericane

It seems eminently safe to assert that no one on the planet is better qualified, musically or philosophically, to shape post-Katrina homage to New Orleans than Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack). The Crescent City is woven into his DNA. He is its chief troubadour, father-confessor, cultural archivist and its head cheerleader. So, it comes as no surprise that Sippiana Hericane, his 25-minute eulogy-cum-prayer for the Big Easy, is so powerfully, nakedly eloquent.

The disc’s seven tracks are constructed around the four-part “Hurricane Suite” that follows the storm’s path from hair-raising warning to harrowing aftermath. Suffice it to say that if you can’t feel each pounding wave, sense each breakwall crack, hear the echo of each pained cry and, ultimately, cheer the suite’s steel-lined resolve for redemption and renewal, then it’s icy seawater filling your veins, not blood. Bookending the suite are a wistful, becalmed reading of Bobby Charles’ environmentally optimistic “Clean Water” and a reworked version of Dr. John’s own “Sweet Home New Orleans,” with refreshed lyrics by his wife Cat Yellen, which bravely promises that the town and the music it made internationally famous are “gonna be back, twice as strong.” (All proceeds from Sippiana Hericane are being divided equally among the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America and the Voice of the Wetlands).

Nearly a quarter-century before Dr. John and the Lower 911 (drummer Herman Ernest III, bassist David Barard and guitarist John Fohl) piled into a studio in upstate New York to record Sippiana Hericane, the good doctor ventured solo into a Manhattan rehearsal space to cut Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack. A year later he returned to craft a companion disc, released 20 years ago as The Brightest Smile in Town. Now, at long last, both of these landmark sessions, made for the small but mighty Clean Cuts jazz label, are available as Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, Vols. 1 & 2. (Actually, the first volume has been around since 2002, but the second surfaced only recently.)

Now, Dr. John has never been what you would call a shy, retiring figure. His brassy, ballsy personality is as bright and outrageous as his trademark plumage. So wading into the muted brilliance of these 35 tracks (comprised almost exclusively of just Mac at his keyboard, with only the occasional dusting of his inimitably grand, ground-glass voice), it’s disconcerting to discover how introspective they are. Indeed, it’s as if he knew this gently spiced gumbo of New Orleans musical styles, New Orleans musical heroes (try not to hear Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, Archibald and other giants seeping out between the grooves) and the indefatigable allure of the city itself was meant to be preserved for all posterity. And, praise the Night Tripper, it has.

Originally Published