Dr. John's Gris-Gris is among the most enduring recordings of the psychedelic era; it sounds as mysterious and spooky in the 21st century as it did in 1968. It is the album where Mac Rebennack established a stage identity that has served him well. A respected studio ace in his native New Orleans, Rebennack was scuffling in L.A. Gris-Gris was his concept, an album that wove various threads of New Orleans music together behind the character of "Dr. John," a real voodoo root doctor from the 19th century. Harold Batiste, another ex-pat New Orleanian and respected arranger in Hollywood, scored him some free studio time left over from a Sonny & Cher session. They assembled a crack band of NOLA exiles and session players including saxophonist Plas Johnson, singers Jessie Hill and Shirley Goodman, and guitarist/mandolinist Richard "Didimus" Washington. Almost everyone played percussion. Gris-Gris sounds like a post-midnight ceremony recorded in the bayou swamp instead of L.A.'s Gold Star Studio where Phil Spector cut hits. The atmosphere is thick, smoky, serpentine, foreboding. Rebennack inhabits his character fully, delivering Creole French and slang English effortlessly in the grain of his half-spoken, half-sung voice. He is high priest and trickster, capable of blessing, cursing, and conning. On the opening incantation "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya," Dr. John introduces himself as the "night tripper" and boasts of his medicinal abilities accompanied by wafting reverbed mandolins, hand drums, a bubbling bassline, blues harmonica, skeletal electric guitar, and a swaying backing chorus that blurs the line between gospel and soul. On "Danse Kalinda Boom," a calliope-sounding organ, Middle Eastern flute, Spanish-tinged guitars, bells, claves, congas, and drums fuel a wordless chorus in four-part chant harmony as a drum orgy evokes ceremonial rites. The sound of NOLA R&B comes to the fore in the killer soul groove of the breezy "Mama Roux." "Croker Courtboullion" is an exercise in vanguard jazz. Spectral voices, electric guitars, animal cries, flute, and moody saxophone solos and percussion drift in and out of the spacy mix. The set's masterpiece is saved for last, the nearly nearly eight-minute trance vamp in "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" (covered by everyone from Humble Pie, Cher, and Johnny Jenkins to Paul Weller and Papa Mali). Dr. John is brazen about the power of his spells in a slippery, evil-sounding boast. Congas, tom-toms, snaky guitar, and harmonica underscore his juju, while a backing chorus affirms his power like mambo priestesses in unison. A ghostly baritone saxophone wafts through the turnarounds. Droning blues, steamy funk, and loopy R&B are inseparably entwined in its groove. Remarkably, though rightfully considered a psychedelic masterpiece, there is little rock music on Gris-Gris. Its real achievement -- besides being a classic collection of startlingly deep tunes -- is that it brought New Orleans' cultural iconographies and musical traits to the attention of an emergent rock audience.
by Thom Jurek