Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Dr John: Musical Hero of New Orleans Traditions

Very sad to hear this morning of the death of Dr John, whose music was a big part of my life, and meant even more after I visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Dr John (Mac Rebennack) (1941-2019) was a virtuoso pianist in the real New Orleans style, learnt from (among others) his first mentor, Professor Longhair. His flamboyant stage persona, which made every performance a grand theatrical event as well as a musical one, was drawn from deep Louisiana roots. There was a load of history behind Dr John.

He took his name from the original Doctor John of New Orleans (I quote from Voodoo in New Orleans (1946) by Robert Tallant): ‘There are few names so important in the history of American Voodoo as that of Doctor John…He claimed to be a Senegalese prince and the masses of grotesque scars that marked his face were believed to support this claim… His home contained a conglomeration of snakes, lizards, embalmed scorpions and animal and human skulls, the last stolen from graveyards…He specialised in healing and the selling of gris-gris and the telling of fortunes.’

Our Dr John the musician enjoyed using Voodoo props in his act and many of his tracks, especially the unforgettable ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ draw on Voodoo mythology and ritual for their poetry.

Another ingredient in his persona was the use of feathers and outlandish costumes derived from the New Orleans tradition of ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ when the more adventurous citizens dress up in huge feathered carnival outfits which are locally supposed to resemble Native American costume but are actually derived historically from the West African traditions of ceremonial and ritual dress – they are related to the feathered carnival costumes you’ll see at both the Rio (Brazil) and Notting Hill Carnivals.

Dr John’s genius was to take all this and mould it into a profoundly exciting musical drama that carried his city’s deepest cultural traditions into rock, blues and jazz in the psychedelic era and beyond.

When disaster struck New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, Dr John went on tour repeatedly to raise money for his fellow citizens and musicians.

He enriched our lives and we’re grateful. Now the spirits have him in their care. Maman Brigitte, Maman Erzulie, Baron Samedi, welcome him and treat him royally!

To read my account of visiting New Orleans after Katrina, please see my book Luna Park from Carcanet Press.

Doña Oxford

Went to an amazing gig last Saturday by a band I’d never heard of before – the Doña Oxford Band. They played at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, Manchester, and they were wonderful: a variety of rock, boogie-woogie, soul, R’n’B and maybe other styles – all of it powered by the superb piano playing of Doña Oxford herself.

Doña, a New Yorker, is one of those musicians who just thinks with total spontaneity through her keyboard. The powerful, inventive phrases just flow out of her. Even during the sound-check, when she was merely tinkling around on different registers of the keyboard, the little momentary improvisations made you want to shout for more. And when she launched into her set, powered by a driving rhythm section and the sharp, inventive, idiomatic guitar-playing of  xxxxxx the music was electrifying.

I often don’t stay till the end at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, but this time I stayed until the band finished at 1.30 a.m. or so and I would gladly have stayed for more.

To try and characterise things a little in terms of the familiar, Doña’s keyboard playing ranges roughly between Jerry Lee Lewis at one end (rock, boogie) and Dr John at the other (elements of New Orleans and ‘stride’, Professor Longhair somewhere in the background). And she sings about as well as she plays – and to give a range again, I’d say maybe from Gladys Knight across to a bit of the Bessie Smiths. And yes, Doña has a notably powerful voice, and no trouble at all playing intricate piano while she sings.

Frustratingly I can’t discover the names of the other msuicians in her band: not on her website, not anywhere. Maybe the personnel changes often? All I can say is, her guitarist accompanied seamlessly and also solo’d in styles that range from the Chuck Berry-esque to prog-rock impro (but never going on too long – in fact he leaves you wanting more); the drummer gave powerful, intricate, latin-tinged percussion that gives exactly the accent and drama needed; and the bassist was inventive and sonorous, always powering and bouncing the music along but shading the music with plunky, twanging accents from time to time. As a bonus she just happened to be a gorgeous dark-haired brunette with the longest legs and the shortest skirt I’ve seen for a long time. Irrelevant? I don’t think so; stage music is also a kind of theatre, and the band’s look is impeccable, from the pale, stubbly, waiflike presence of the guitarist, to the powerful, Mama’s-gonna-sort-ya-out superwoman dynamism of Doña herself. And the two backing singers were totally professional – the right harmonies, the right musical emphases, the right hint of emotional drama – and they danced all the way through.

Doña Oxford is playing keyboards at the Stockport Plaza on Monday 4 May with what seems to be another band called Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes. And if you want to see her with her own band, in a more intimate setting, Doña says they’ll be back at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s (Manchester) in November. There  are a range of other dates, UK and US, on her website at http://www.donaoxford.com/index.htm You should think about going.