Dr. John the Night Tripper’s 1968 debut album, Gris Gris, is the dirty swampy bastard child of a Mardi Gras celebration crossed with a voodoo ceremony. Gris Gris maybe the only album of the psychedelic era that when played today, over 40 years later, does not sound dated. Mac Rebennack was already a well-respected studio musician in New Orleans when he decided to adopt the Dr. John persona and make his first solo album. The name Dr. John was lifted from a real voodoo practitioner that live in Louisiana sometime during the 19th century. The history on the namesake is sketchy at best, but it only adds to the mystery of Dr. John, the musician.
The 1960’s set against the backdrop of Dr. John’s hometown of New Orleans created a haunting mix of swampy boogie-woogie and psychedelia that would meld together perfectly on Gris Gris. Dr. John’s raspy voice is the center of attention, but the album has an amazing hodgepodge of musical instrumentation floating in the background at all times. There are soulful backup singers, black magic chants, and ghostly melodies played on flute, sax, and clarinet. Dr. John has chicken blood in a rusty can, a black cat bone, and all the John the conquer root he can handle.
“I Walk on Gilded Splinters” is the best known song of the album having been covered by numerous artist including Paul Weller, The Allman Brothers, and Humble Pie just to name a few. Dr. John’s version though plays as a kind of church hymn that you would hear at a pagan sacrifice. I don’t mean to say that the song sounds demonic in any way. In fact, the song has some joyous undertones, but against the juxtaposition of the moaning piano and voodoo chants, it leaves the listener with an uneasy feeling. The song “Mama Roux” is a funky celebration of the darker side of New Orleans. The song sets you in a dark smoke filled room with the smell of catfish frying in the air. The whole album is a wonderful work of dark genius, and as such, it’s best taken in as a whole.
This album is guaranteed to blow your mind. Originals are not cheap, but they have been repressed for about $15-$20. You can find various other pressings from the 70’s for between $20 and $30.