At the height of psychedelia, Dr. John concocts a strange brew of his own
In 1967, when this album was recorded, psychedelic rock was at its peak, with bands such as Pink Floyd, The Nice, Cream, The Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer, and a thousand others all having succumbed to the charms of LSD. Although Gris-gris, by comparison, was quite possibly one of the weirdest of them all.
A native of New Orleans, Mac Rebennack, AKA Dr. John took his adopted name from a real life 19th Century witchdoctor who lived in New Orleans, the stage persona being a fusion of voodoo mysticism and deep south folklore. The concept for Dr. John’s debut had been floating around in his head for some time, but it wasn’t until Harold Battiste, a music arranger based in Hollywood, offered him the chance to record at L.A.’s Gold Star Studios, using whatever free time remained after a Sonny & Cher session, that the whole thing came together (Battiste, also a New Orleans native, worked with Rebennack on the theme). The result was a potent mix of voodoo incantations, including elements of funk, soul, Creole, New Orleans R&B, and of course psychedelia.
The entire album has a dark, menacing quality to it, with Rebennack playing the role of mystical priest, casting spells and sinister sorcery along the way. More voodoo ritual than pop-rock, Gris-gris is as much about theatrics as it is music.
First up is “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” a strange medicinal hybrid of mandolins, congas, electric guitar and a harmonica played straight from the swamps. Here Dr. John announces himself as “The Night Tripper,” someone who has “remedies of every description” to “cure all your ills.” Rebennack’s smoky voice hypnotically seduces its way inside the listener’s inner membrane, as if attempting to put one into a state of reverie. “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” is like a ceremonial rite performed by a troupe of crazed Haitian mambos caught in a trance, praying to their naughty gods.
“Mama Roux” is one of the album’s more accessible numbers, with an addictive groove and chorus, as is “Jump Sturdy”, a narrative concerning a priestess who “came out the swamps like a crazy fool,” who dances “with the fish” and “raised her hands and caused a ‘lectrical storm.” Superstition and the supernatural go hand in hand on Gris-gris, and “Danse Fambeaux” is no exception, a dense, foggy voodoo blues, with Rebennack singing like a painter flicking his brush at a canvass. “Croker Courtboullion,” arranged by Battiste, is pure Hollywood meets Africa, replete with tribal chanting, bongos, animal noises, flute, and even a harpsichord. A more appropriate title would be ‘Tarzan takes a trip.’
Now the piece de resistance has to be final number “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” a song with a serpentine beat and more atmosphere than a Hammer Horror movie. Congas, ghostly guitar, haunting vocals, and a snake charmer saxophone straight out of the Nile Delta, all meld together to make this the highlight of the LP. Just as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins shall forever be identified with “I Put A Spell On You,” so too will Rebennack be associated with this inimitable masterpiece, covered by everyone from Humble Pie, Paul Weller, and even Cher.
When the album was released in early 1968, the music industry hardly blinked. Too strange no doubt for those who were still digesting Sgt. Pepper, The Doors, and Are You Experienced? Gris-gris will always remain the odd one out, and a uniquely strange document even today. After this, Rebennack would shift ever further into far more listener friendly, though no less eclectic territory, which is most probably the direction he was headed towards anyway. But how he could have replicated the misty bayou sound of Gris-gris is anyone’s guess. Arthur Brown must have surely been jealous.