Little Milton, Chess Blues Master Series: Little Milton (Chess, 1976)
Dr. John the Night Tripper, Gris-gris (Atco, 1968)
Dr. John’s Gumbo (Atco, 1972)
Dr. John, In the Right Place (Atco, 1973)
You are a different person with different synapses as you listen to records over decades. I bought the Dr. John LPs starting in 1972 with the first two (I think I also got Remedies, which I’m very sorry has vanished over the years). I could sense I didn’t quite geddit. For a long time I thought Gris-gris was one of those albums you were “supposed” to like but was actually a mess. (Except for “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” which i thought was a unique streak of rock-psyche, without understanding the sources at all.) Now, In the Right Place turned me around about the guy and pulled me closer to a fundamental understanding of New Orleans. I played the hell out of it (even with the modern-miracle turntable, it sounds quite worn) and decided it was more evidence that wherever this guy was coming from, I needed to get hip.
Little Milton’s Chess Blues Master double LP (these are consistently strong collections that feature wonderful, not-the-usual cover art by Nick Caruso) was one of the last blowout discoveries I made in Missoula and I played for everyone who would listen and decided I was a serious Little Milton advocate. I’ve never heard another release by him I like as much (though Waiting for Little Milton on Stax does have one of the all-time jacket art). I played a bunch of other Milton in this listen session and he seems more and more minor and derivative to me (his debts to BB King get in the way a lot — his guitar can be powerful tearing up the open field, though). But oh, man — track down that Chess Blues Master set for unmatched tough sound and selection/sequence by Dan Nooger and Aaron Fuchs.
Now my point with Dr. john — though I’m not going into detail — is the opposite. I hear more and more in him — sail past his indulgences — with more pleasure than I did as a callow youth. And the short answer is that i understand districts more about New Orleans. How it talks several languages specific to the place. How it regards time. How kids form bands instead of pick-up basketball teams. How performances mesh and mess with ritual.
As a NO native whispered to me as we watched Dr.John cast the hoodoo one night, “If you don’t understand New Orleans, this part doesn’t make any sense.”