There are two reasons that I’ve decided to write about Dr John’s 1971 album The Sun, Moon and Herbs. The first reason is that in a previous article about his 1998 album Anutha Zone, an album which was to some extent, a comeback album, and welcome return to form for him, I mentioned that this album was among the best of his early albums. Between 1968 and 1974, Dr John released a number of classic albums for the Atco record label. This included his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris, Babylon in 1969, Remedies in 1970 and The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs in 1971, Gumbo in 1972, In the Right Place in 1973 and 1974s’ Desitively Bonnaroo. These albums are among the best music Dr John has ever recorded, and saw him record one great album after another. It was difficult to choose which of these albums to write about, but after listening to each album, I decided to write about The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs. When I was listening to these albums, it brought memories flooding back of seeing Dr John in concert. Both concerts took place in Glasgow, and Dr John put on a great show. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s one of the best live performers you’ll ever see. He played a mixture of old and new songs, and is one of the best pianists you’ll ever hear. Combined with his gravely, worldweary, voice, it’s a potent combination. On both occasions, the audience were in awe of him, and for two hours, he played one great song after another, backed by a tight and polished backing band. Even though these concerts were many years ago, every time I hear his music, the memories come flooding back. Now I’m going to revisit an album that was released forty years ago, and featured guest appearances from Eric Clapton on guitar, Mick Jagger on backing vocals and Graham Bond on alto saxophone, The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs, Dr John’s 1971 album.

The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs opens with Black John The Conqueror which opens with Dr John playing a dramatic jangly piano solo before he sings. His voice has that lived in, worldweary sound, as behind him a bass throbs, drums play loosely and some hugely soulful backing vocalists unite, accompanying him. Their sweet soulful voices provide the perfect contrast to Dr John’s voice. The brass section enter, punctuating the track. By now, the arrangement has grown. It’s quite a full arrangement, drenched in a dramatic mixture of soul with a generous slice of New Orleans funk thrown in for good measure. Here, the band provide the perfect backing track for Dr John and his backing vocalists to sing call and response. Together Dr John, the backing vocalists and the band produce a brilliant track to open the album. It’s dramatic, atmospheric and features some great lyrics, which Dr John brings to life with the help of his band and backing singers. 

Short repeated bursts from the brass section announce the arrival of Where Ya At Mule. After that, Dr John gently plays the piano, and backing vocalists joyously unite before he sings. His voice is strong, full of character, as he sings the lyrics, before the brass section and guitar combine. The tempo is slow, the sound a laid back mix of jazz and New Orleans funk. Like the previous track, Dr John uses his backing vocalists to sing call and response, and they’re voices are a perfect foil to his. Suddenly, the track changes, as Dr John adds some drama to the proceedings. Both he and his backing vocalists decide to slow things down, leaving more space in the arrangement. This is really effective, with drums, guitar and bass section accompanying them subtly. Both his vocal and piano playing are excellent, laden in drama. What makes this track so good is the arrangement, a combination of Dr John, his backing vocalists and the subtle accompaniment of his band.

Craney Crow has a slow hesitant start, with the sound atmospheric, almost eery but quite wonderul. It’s a mixture of drums, guitar and brass section with backing vocalists and voices in the background. Eventually, Dr John’s growling vocal enters, accompanied by his faithful backing vocalists. Their soulful voices are quite a contrast to Dr John’s raspy, growl. Behind him, drums are spacious, atmospheric, while guitars and bass play occasionally. Mostly, it’s call and response between Dr John and the backing vocalists. When Dr John sings, the lyrics are atmospheric, telling of the colorful side of New Orleans. Throughout the track, it’s minimalistic, just a few instruments playing, with Dr John and his backing vocalists taking centre-stage. However, it’s highly effective, hugely atmospheric and sounds brilliant.

After a very different previous track from the preceding ones, Dr John ups the tempo on Familiar Reality-Opening. It opens with drums playing, the brass section enter, gradually filling the sound out before it bursts into life when Dr John enters. His voice is loud and strong, his piano playing among the best on the album. Behind him, the brass section drench him in their glorious sound, while the rhythm section and guitars play. It’s another full arrangement that’s unfolding, one that combines jazz and funk. Dr John’s vocal sits at the top of the arrangement, which builds and builds, getting better as the track progresses. The brass section, piano and guitars especially bring the arrangement to life. Later, Dr John slows things way down, adding drama as he almost speaks the vocal, accompanied by percussion and brass section. It then heads towards the end an impressive and melodic combination of Dr John’s charismatic vocal and a standout performance from his band.

It’s a gentle melodic sound that opens Pots On Fiyo (File Gumbo/Who I Got To Fall On (If the Pot Gets Heavy)). After the meandering, melodic opening, Dr John whispers the vocal as he plays his piano. Quickly his vocal get stronger. Backing vocalists accompany him, their voices high, slightly shrill. Congas play, accompanying the piano as the arrangement starts to fill out, the tempo getting slightly quicker. Drums and saxophone combine. Joyous backing vocalists join in, as the arrangement becomes somewhat crowded. The backing vocalists, sing and holler, they’re loud, repeating the same line, singing quickly, as guitars and brass section play. Then the track begins to take a discordant turn and sound. Suddenly, things have gotten chaotic. It’s as if the track got out of control briefly. Overall, the track is a good one, slightly spoiled by the ending. It isn’t as good as the other tracks, but is still a charismatic and atmospheric track.

At the start of Zu Zu Mamou a tuba plays slowly, short spacious bursts. After what is an unusual opening, the drums, guitar and vibes combine, helping to create an atmospheric arrangement. This increases when Dr John’s whispery vocal enters, accompanied by backing vocalists who do their best to add to the overwhelmingly, atmospheric arrangement. By now, the arrangement has taken on almost an eery, sinister feel and sound. The track meanders, various sounds emerging from behind Dr John’s vocal. Drums rumble, backing vocalists and percussion adds to the almost pedestrian paced arrangement. Occasionally a piano or guitar play, but everything just enters and disappears, and at one point it’s just Dr John and a backing vocalists whispering the lyrics eerily. Once the arrangement starts back up, it’s just him, the backing vocalists, rumbling drums, a meandering guitar and wailing trumpet. By the end, you can only marvel at what has been eight of the eeriest and most atmospheric minutes of music brought to you courtesy of Dr John.

The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs, ends with Familiar Reality-(Reprise), a short track, which begins with a tuba playing, and Dr John’s whispery vocal, almost rapping, against a backdrop of slow, spacious drums. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the track burst joyously and fabulously into life. Backing vocalists sing, their voices joyous, happy, as if giving thanks. A guitar and piano play, drums filling out the sound, as they combine to bring the track to a close. Sadly, this only lasts for under a minute. If this had lasted five minutes, it would still wouldn’t have been long enough. However, it was great while it lasted and a good way to end the album.

The albums Dr John recorded for Atco were among his best work. I was spoiled for choice when I decided to write this article. There were seven albums I could’ve chosen and each of them contain some wonderful music. However, in the end I chose The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs, having mentioned in a previous article how good an album it is. Having spent time listening to the album I must revise my earlier appraisal, as it’s a great album, one of Dr John’s best. It’s an album that’s atmospheric, and takes you on a journey through Dr John’s world where he fuses soul, funk, jazz, and psychedelia. This combination is masterful, and at times, is joyous, uplifting and spiritual, at other times eery, verging on sinister and sends a shiver down your spine. In a word, brilliant. Quite simply, if you want to hear some music that brings to life the sights and sounds of New Orleans this is for you. It’s classic Dr John, from a time when he produced one great album after another. This album is one the five issued in the Classic Album Series box set, which also features Gris-Gris, Babylon Gumbo and In the Right Place. Five great albums for the price of one, what more could you wish for. I just wish it was around when I first started buying Dr John’s music, I’d have saved a fortune. Standout Tracks: Black John The Conqueror, Where Ya At Mule, Craney Crow and Zu Zu Mamou.



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