Atco SD 7043
Released: May 1974
Chart Peak: #105
Weeks Charted: 8
On Desitively Bonnaroo, Dr. John has refined his art, advanced it moderately, and created another entertaining LP. His music now breaks into two clear styles: riffs (up-tempo vehicles on which he employs a variety of R&B rhythms) and songs (ballads and medium-paced tunes that allow him a greater emotional range.
The riffs give him a chance to invoke his mastery of the idiomatic lyric, his folk-sense of humor, and his ominous and mysterious presence. When the tunes are too melodically repetitive, as on "Quitters Never Win," then even the excellence of Allen Toussaint's arrangement and production, as well as the playing of his New Orleans sessionmen, cannot sustain interest. But "What Comes Around (Goes Around)" has an interesting chord progression, some of the Doctor's most pointed lyrics, great bass by George Porter, Jr., as well as its extraordinary rhythm track. "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" works because it's funny, and "Desitively Bonnaroo" because of its intensity -- it sounds like a continuation of "Right Place, Wrong Time."
Dr. John wrote ten of the 12 songs and that may have been a few too many. Also, the new album lacks the high points of In the Right Place. But it flows together just as well and is so perfectly sketched in its nuances and details that one easily overlooks its occasional repetitiveness and the shortcomings of some of the material.
To the cajun population of New Orleans, the expression desitively bonnaroo has come to mean "better than the best." It supposedly originated among the inmates of South Louisiana's dreary Angola Prison, located on an avenue called Bonnaroo. If you were on that street and not in the prison, it was desitively bonnaroo.
Desitively Bonnaroo is also the title of Dr. John's seventh album, and at first glance, it seems to be just that -- better than his best. Advancing in the direction of his successful last LP, In the Right Place, it is a balanced, commercially viable synthesis of his hoodoo and dixieland roots. Yet in light of Mac Rebenneck a.k.a. Dr. John's twenty-year saga through the music biz and his hard-earned reputation as a legend in his own time, he seems to have taken the easy way out.
His gris-gris/gumbo mixture has been formularized into a spellbinding but predictable potion. And his stage act, which always featured outlandish Mardi Gras constumes and satchels filled with gittering gris-gris, has been hyped-up to capitalize on the currently trendy glitter-rock and rock theatrics. But his music still comes across with the integrity and potence of a master.
As in In the Right Place, Mac has taken advantage of the specialized production talents of Allen Toussaint (this time at Toussaint's own Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans), and has again used the fabled New Orleans band The Meters as his studio group. Each of the twelve cuts on the LP has been well-conceived, clearly thought-out, and reveals a new level of musical depth for the doctor.
Perhaps the most ambitious numbers on the album are Earl King's spirited "Let's Make a Better World" and the soft-shoe "Sing Along Song," both are similarly constructed with primary and secondary melodies skillfully fused into one. "Quitters Never Win" and "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" are wildly compelling wails of song, "Mos'Scocious" is a dangerously infectious rhumba.
The title tune, "Desitively Bonnaroo," seems to have been patterned after "In the Right Place." Done in a minor key, it changes beat midway for a stabbing electric guitar part played over thumping bass. Dr. John grunts out the spicy lyrics ("high steppin' mama/better keep on foxin' with your foxy self") as his chick singers shriek "give me what you got for me." The effect is downright evil.
And I'd be damned impressed if I didn't know it was all so easy for him. But apparently Dr. John has grown tired of being perennially ahead of his time, and I can't blame him. I wonder what he'll pull out of his satchel of sound next time, now that he's given us a chance to catch up.
- Ellen Mandel, Zoo World, 7/18/74.
Dr. John does enunciate more piquantly than Frankie Miller or King Biscuit Boy, but this is basically another chance for Allen Toussaint to meet up with a white blues singer and groove all the way to the bank. Not that that's bad -- these days it's my favorite subgenre, and this may be the best of them all. Despite the absence of a standout song ("Mos' Scocious" is a great readymade) it's more fun than Right Place, Wrong Time. But it does lean toward the music-is-the-answer fallacy. Toussaint shouldn't write songs putting down those who fill their lives "with money matters" -- he's too wealthy. And Dr. John shouldn't sing them -- he's too hip. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
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