Dr John – Things Happen That Way
(Rounder Records 00888072427433. Album review by Jane Mann)
Things Happen That Way is Dr John’s final studio album – he was working on it when he died unexpectedly aged 77 in 2019. The project was something he’d been planning for years – a look back to some early musical influences, and his love of what he called “hillbilly music”.
Malcolm John (Mac) Rebennack Jr, AKA Dr John grew up in New Orleans in a very musical family, listening to blues, jazz and country. He decided to become a performing musician after meeting pianist Professor Longhair when he was fourteen. By the time he was fifteen he was working in recording studios, playing guitar and piano for various artists including Art Neville and Allen Toussaint, at which point he left school. In his long career he seems to have covered all the musical genres available in New Orleans – jazz, funk, boogie-woogie and rock’n’roll and those of Memphis and Nashville too. I first came across him in the 1970s when he was performing as Dr John the Night Tripper, making those fabulous voodoo funk hits.
I have had the good fortune to see Dr John perform twice. The first time was a gig at the Prince of Orange pub in Rotherhithe in 1984. I sometimes can hardly believe that it took place, it seems so unlikely – a master of New Orleans piano, for free, in Rotherhithe. It wasn’t busy and my friends and I sat just a few feet away from the piano. The support band were a local group led by a 22 year old Jon Cleary called King Kleary and the Savage Mooses who played New Orleans style music. We used to go and see them play whenever we could, as they were terrific. This time they also acted as Dr John’s backing band. I remember Cleary getting up from the piano stool and strapping on an electric guitar as a frail and intoxicated Dr John was led in to take his place. It was a superlative night of New Orleans music, which I feel lucky to have witnessed. Jon Cleary left for New Orleans soon after this, and worked with Dr John many times over the years, including on this new album.
The second time was years later at the Barbican. I was happy to see a bright-eyed Dr John, fully recovered from his addictions, stride boldly over to the piano, cane in hand, and play another tremendous gig, this time with his own large band.
I settled down with some trepidation to listen to the new record – much as I love Dr John, country is not my favourite genre and I was initially a little underwhelmed. Second time through, and I began to hear the New Orleans undertow. Dr John’s singing, in particular, makes the listener hear the lyrics of those trite songs in a different way, as any master’s take on an old standard should. Take the two Hank Williams songs here. Ramblin’ Man has been performed with a sort of “Look at me, I break hearts and then I’m on my way” swagger. Dr John’s take is simpler somehow, unheroic and with a touchingly plaintive train whistle at the end. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is sung absolutely straight but so wistfully, with Shane Heriot accompanying on various guitars including lap steel.
The opening track is his old friend Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away. It is beautifully played in a pared back New Orleans style with an understated 2nd Line backing made up of fine New Orleans session musicians including two lovely backing vocalists. Willie Nelson appears again to sing and play guitar on Gimme That Old Time Religion in which Dr John touches on another musical tradition by briefly taking us to church.
Willie Nelson’s son Lukas and his band play on a reworking of Dr John’s 1968 hit I Walk on Guilded Splinters, which seems even darker than the original. If you ever wanted to know what that song is about, the accompanying liner notes provide the lyrics.
Bob Dylan has spoken warmly about Dr John’s cover of The Travelling Wilbury’s End of the Line. It’s another unpretentious take which rolls gently along with Dr John in fine voice. He is joined by guest vocalists Aaron Neville, New Orleans contemporary and old friend, and a young alt-country star from Nashville, Katie Pruitt. Those three very different voices together are a delight as they call and respond their way through the song.
There are three new country-inspired songs written by Dr John and guitarist Shane Theriot performed in a modest style – it will be interesting to see if they are picked up by Country and Western singers.
The final song Guess Things Happen That Way, which gives the album its title, was written by Cowboy Jack Clement, a prolific writer of country songs, in 1958. It was a hit for Johnny Cash, and has been recorded by lots of country stars. This is a melancholic reading.
As for Jon Cleary, now such a firmly established figure on the New Orleans music scene that he made a cameo appearance in Treme, the post-Katrina set TV series – he is there in the background, adding to the gumbo feel on several tracks with his B3 embellishments, and occasionally providing additional keyboards for his old friend and mentor Dr John.
Dr John – vocal, piano
Shane Theriot – guitars
Tony Hall / Will Lee / Corey McCornick – bass
Carlo Nuccio / Herlin Riley / Anthony Logerfo – drums
Jon Cleary – B3 organ, additional keyboards
David Torkanowsky – Wurlitzer piano
Mark Mullins – trombone, horn arrangements
Alonzo Bowens – tenor sax
Leon ‘Kid Chocolate’ Brown – trumpet
Yolanda Robinson – background vocals
Jolyinda ‘Kiki’ Chapman – background vocals
Matthew Breaux – background vocals
Willie Nelson – vocal, guitar
Lukas Nelson – vocal, guitar (and his band Promise of the Real)
Katie Pruitt – vocal
Aaron Neville – vocal
- Funny How Time Slips Away
- Ramblin’ Man
- Gimme That Old Time Religion
- I Walk on Guilded Splinters
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
- End of the Line
- Holy Water
- Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone
- Give Myself a Good Talkin’ to
- Guess Things Happen That Way
Categories: Album review