singer-songwriter-pianist to release
new album to benefit the Crescent
There's so much passion for New
Orleans in Dr. John's fingers
that every time they touch the
piano it feels like Mardi Gras.
But ask him how he feels about
the way the Crescent City and
its citizens and environment have
been treated in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina and you can
feel the darkness of its back
alleys and floating graveyards
rise through the hoodoo-voodoo
"My friend the Reverend
Goat said New Orleans didn't die
of natural causes. It was murdered,
and I agree with that," he
says. "I'm mad at the city,
the state and the federal government.
I've been mad since the beginning
and I'm madder still.
"There are people in New
Orleans that are trying to keep
the peoples' spirits up that I'm
really proud of. They're trying
their hearts out, but it's a struggle.
People have no idea the amount
of devastation and how nobody's
addressing the problems. It's
a very emotional issue with me."
Widely celebrated as the living
embodiment of New Orleans' rich
musical heritage, Malcolm "Mac"
Rebennack started his musical
career in the 1950s, writing and
playing guitar on some of the
greatest records to come out of
New Orleans by Professor Longhair,
Art Neville, Joe Tex and Frankie
Ford. His unique sound, which
encompassed African, Native American
and Creole influences, made him
an in-demand session player. But
while attempting to break up a
fight at a gig, a gun went off
and nearly severed his index finger,
forcing him to give up the guitar
and focus on the piano.
Troubles with drugs and the
law sent him packing to Los Angeles
in the mid-1960s where he changed
his name to Dr. John, a.k.a. The
Night Tripper, and found session
work with Harold Battiste, the
musical director for Sonny &
Cher. He soon joined the duo's
backing band, but Battiste encouraged
him to develop his Dr. John persona,
which was inspired by a 19th century
Bambarra prince Dr. John Montaine,
who lived in New Orleans and practiced
Dr. John seemingly embraced Montaine's
spirit when he released his landmark
debut album, "Gris Gris,"
in 1968. Chockful of voodoo mysticism,
psychedelic rock and New Orleans-style
fonk 'n' roll, its cover featured
The Night Tripper adorned in a
Mardi-Gras Indian feathered head-dress
and a long colorful robe, quickly
launching his star.
His 1971 album "Sun, Moon
and Herbs" featured cameos
by Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger,
and 1973's "In the Right
Place" netted two chart hits,
the title track and "Such
A Night." And over the years,
he has recorded with the Rolling
Stones, The Band, Bob Dylan, Van
Morrison and Art Blakey, won four
Grammy Awards, headlined major
festivals, recorded numerous commercial
jingles and explored his musical
past and future while becoming
the world's foremost statesman
for New Orleans music.
His unflappable love of New
Orleans not only informs his music,
but it also spurs his role as
an environmentalist, fighting
to preserve Louisiana's ecology,
namely its eroding wetlands. This
week, Dr. John released "Sippiana
Hericane," an album that's
proceeds will be donated to the
New Orleans Musicians Clinic,
the Jazz Foundation of America
and the Voice of the Wetlands.
"This is the best way we
can make people aware of the devastation
and keep it in peoples' hearts
because a lot of our homies have
been evicted from their places
and dumped all over the USA,"
he says. "A lot of them have
no way to get home and the ones
who get there have no place to
stay. It creeps me out."
Twelve weeks after the hurricane,
Dr. John says, it appears as though
officials have no idea how to
rectify the problems New Orleans
is facing. About 400,000 residents
have been unable to return home
and an estimated 80,000 homes
The 65-year-old pianist says
it's unfortunate it took a disaster
like Hurricane Katrina to bring
attention to the problems facing
Louisiana's environment. He says
officials ignored eroding wetlands
for 50 years, and that if they
were preserved and levees and
dikes were built it would have
lessened the catastrophic effects
"The problem is nobody
wanted to spend the money,"
he says. "But now there's
nothing to protect us, and New
Orleans could be gone in the next
hurricane season. Even the amount
of pollution going into the Gulf
of Mexico right now is horrendous.
Eventually that's going into
the Caribbean and Antarctic Ocean,
which won't help the planet at
all. I pray people learn a lesson
from all this."
Dr. John says several people
have returned to the French Quarter
and parts of Jefferson Parish,
but most of the city's ninth ward
is uninhabitable. He says recovery
efforts have been slow because
its residents are poor, though
it also was home to Aaron Neville
and Fats Domino, and he is critical
of officials for not helping those
who need the assistance the most.
"People say that's where
all the thugs live, but a lot
of people live where they love
and where their roots are,"
he says. "I lived in the
ninth ward part of my life and
I loved it. I still love it and
it's gone and I feel crushed."
He credits small churches and
non-profit groups for trying to
help people rebuild their lives,
noting that people from around
the world have offered to help.
"They've been the backbone,
but they can't do everything,"
Dr. John says. "I'm so disturbed
by the big groups that haven't
helped. It's very inhumane, to
put it bluntly.
"I know when we tour all
over the world people respect
New Orleans for all the joyous
music and original foods we've
given them. This is affecting
Though Dr. John says New Orleans
won't be the same to him as it
was before Hurricane Katrina,
he's confident its citizens will
try to restore its magic.
"We aren't the kind of
people who throw in the towel,"
he says. "We're proud to
call ourselves coon-asses. We
fight for what we believe in.
We're coming back and we're going
to do the best we can to make
it better." CV
Slim picks low-down blues
Homan, a.k.a Watermelon Slim,
has spent years on the road earning
his living, but he seems to be
at home pickin' low-down blues.
For 18 years, he hauled industrial
waste and dry goods, but now he
drives his band, the Workers,
to blues ports around the country.
"The band I'm playing with
is responsible for my success,"
the 56-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist
says. "They're the reason
I'm getting anywhere 'cause they
help people take me seriously."
Though there's no denying the
important contributions Michael
Newberry (drums), Ike Lamb (guitar)
and Cliff Belcher (bass) have
made to Slim's music, what makes
his sound so unique and authentic
by comparison to most blues acts
today is that it reflects his
colorful life. His primal sound,
an extension of his influences
like John Lee Hooker, Mississippi
Fred McDowell and Elmore James,
is a reminder of the days of yore
when bluesmen actually sang about
their rough-and-tumble lives,
as he often addresses themes of
work, relationships and mortality.
"William Faulkner said
the writer does his best work
when he writes about what he knows,"
he says. "And what I know
is work, frustrated expectations,
two failed marriages and near
brushes with death."
Though Slim says the maid who
worked for his parents first exposed
him to blues music, he has led
an otherwise underprivileged life.
He learned to play guitar in the
early '70s while laid up with
an illness in Vietnam, where he
purchased a homemade balsa wood
instrument for $5 and used his
U.S. military-issue Zippo lighter
as a slide. In 1973, he became
the only Vietnam veteran to record
a full-length album during the
war, a protest album entitled
"Merry Airbrakes" that
provided material for Country
Joe McDonald. And though he could
have signed that year with Atlantic
Records, he wound up leading the
life of an itinerant bluesman,
working blue-collar jobs like
operating forklifts, farming watermelons
(hence the name) and driving trucks
while moving from town to town
and continent to continent.
"Have you ever heard of
a Vietnam veteran rock star?"
Slim says. "Never have, have
you? That's because Vietnam didn't
put anybody in the mood for singing."
Over the years, Slim developed
friendships and musical bonds
with singer-activist Barbara Dane,
roommate Henry "Sunflower"
Vestine of Canned Heat and Chicago
blues harp master "Earring"
George Mayweather, who he cites
as his greatest influence and
fishing buddy. He's shared the
stage with Bonnie Raitt, Robert
Cray, Champion Jack Dupree and
Hooker. And at one point in his
career, he even played with a
group of inmates on furlough from
MCI Concord Prison in Massachusetts
called the MCIs.
Not bad for a guy with college
degrees in journalism and history
and a former member of MENSA International,
an exclusive society limited to
those with genius-range IQs. Some
say he is the most literate bluesman
in the world.
"I certainly tested the
best," Slim says. "But
Taj Mahal has a master's degree
in my field, too."
Despite his academic pursuits,
Slim considers himself an old-school
man of the world. The more he
thinks about things, the more
it leads him back to the truths
of the blues.
"There's a no-frills approach
to it," he says. "That's
why I'm still trying to keep the
music sounding really real and
without any technological intermediary
Slim almost didn't get the chance
to express his blues, but a near-fatal
heart attack in 2002 gave him
a renewed perspective. In 2004,
he released "Up Close &
Personal," which received
rave reviews, and earlier this
year, he was nominated for a W.C.
Handy Award for Best New Artist
"Everything I do now has
a sharper pleasure to it,"
Slim says. "I've lived a
fuller life than most people could
in two. If I go now, I've got
no regrets. I've had money to
dispose of, I've been in a war,
I've fought against war, I've
got a good education, I've lived
on three continents, I've had
lover experiences that go beyond
what any good ol' boy could bullshit
about sitting around the campfire
and I've been the bad guy. I've
seen an awful lot and done an
awful lot." CV
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