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Desitively Bonnaroo
Dr. John

Atco SD 7043
Released: May 1974
Chart Peak: #105
Weeks Charted: 8

Dr. JohnOn 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 - Desitively Bonnaroo
Original album advertising art.
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Personally, I generally prefer hearing Dr. John stretch out. "Me - You = Loneliness" and "Sing Along Song" have a kind of sensual lilt that few other musicians ever achieve. Besides their greater depth, such songs are better vehicles for his limited but expressive singing and his piano playing.

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.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 6/6/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Dr. John's latest outing includes more delicious New Orleans gumbo music than did his last album (with which I wasn't thrilled -- but don't listen to me; it was the biggest commercial success he's had). This one combines just enough soul-pop with the real thing, and there are a half a dozen songs guaranteed to set you romping and stomping. "Mos' Scosious," "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away," and the title tune are delightful. "Stealin'" is a folkish blues remarkable for its catalog of things like nasty people will do ("like stealin' med'cine from the sick"), and "R U 4 Real" contains some marvelous lines.

The rhythm section - Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr., Arthur Neville, and Joseph Modeliste -- are all New Orleans men and used to be known as the Meters, under which they had several instrumental hits in the late Sixties. According to the album cover, Modeliste plays "trap drums," which is almost a forgotten skill these days. What it means, basically, is that graceful but fairly complex rhythms are played on the cymbals with no more than perfunctory attention paid to the rest of the drum set. Trap playing was less unusual some years ago, but since the days of the big bands, drummers have been expected to or have demanded to make as much noise as possible, especially in rock. But Dr. John is not rock. He is a subtle blend of many styles, which is what New Orleans is all about, musically and as a city.

Allen Toussaint, a greatly gifted man, has again arranged and produced. With a hit album behind them, he and Dr. John have apparently relaxed their concern about making dead-on soul-pop records and have arrived at a juicy happy medium that satisfies both pop requirements and their mutual home-town musical preferences. There is a lot of tasty playing here, too. G'wan, get yourself some of this gumbo.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 8/74.

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.

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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.

"Stealin'" is slightly reminiscent of Dr. John's early style; each subtly sinister verse is capped by a growled punchline: "Stealin' money from the blind... stealin' food from the hungry... stealin' medicine from the sick." The haunting first verse of "What Comes Around Goes Around" floats in on eerie streams of mellotron, then bursts into a rocking refrain of creole philosophy.

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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