Though his career has stretched from session musicianship to gris-gris psychedelia and supper-club standards, the music of Dr. John has never strayed far from its roots. And those roots have never been more joyously, bawdily or playfully celebrated than they are on this album. A sequel of sorts to Gumbo (1972), Goin’ Back to New Orleans digs deeper than that collection did. If this isn’t the definitive Dr. John album, it is his most ambitious and ranks with his best.
The opening track, “Litanie des Saints,” asserts that ambition, weaving together strains of nineteenth-century folk-based classicism, African and Catholic religious ritual, call-and-response vocals featuring Cyril Neville with the good doctor and a syncopated ragtime piano coda into a revelatory piece of music. From there, Dr. John conjures many of the same Crescent City ghosts that have inhabited Wynton Marsalis’s recent recordings: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and others. Morton’s “Milneburg Joys” and the age-old “Basin Street Blues” have so much sex, soul and magic in their sultry grooves that you can practically feel the steam rising.
Elsewhere, highlights among the eighteen cuts include the Mardi Gras chant of “My Indian Red” (arranged to swing by the venerable Danny Barker); a dog-and-donkey novelty tandem in “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)” and “Cabbage Head,” a conversational, schmaltz-free reading of the standard “Since I Fell for You”; and a romp through the title cut — featuring the Nevilles, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain — that is as visual as a vaudeville revue.
While Goin’ Back to New Orleans pays its proper respects to the influence of Fats, ‘Fess, Booker and Toussaint, the strongest musical imprint throughout is that of Dr. John, staking a claim to join the pantheon of those he has so long interpreted.