Charles Spencer

Magic of New Orleans

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More than 11 years after getting sober, memories of my more disgraceful drunken nights can still make me blush with shame. Waking up in a police cell with no idea how I came to be there was a low point and so was being discovered unconscious in the pouring rain under the shrubs in a neighbour’s garden.

In the mercifully rare moments when I find myself dreaming of a drink, it is the thought of such dark times that helps keep me on the straight and narrow.  But of one long drunken night I have only the fondest if admittedly befuddled memories.

It happened in 1996 on a press junket. Disney was opening its new animated film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame not in Paris, but in New Orleans, with its famous French Quarter. The screening was in the Superdome stadium, which later became such a hellish place of refuge for many during Hurricane Katrina, and after going back to the hotel to file our reviews, a colleague and I hit the town.

Bourbon Street seemed like a wonderful late-night carnival and there was an extraordinary tall, blood-red cocktail called a Hurricane on sale, deliciously cold in the hot and steamy night that got you high as a kite. Apparently, the ingredients are rum, more rum, a little extra rum plus grenadine, passion fruit and orange juice. Boy, does the Hurricane live up to its name. It sent me surfing through the streets on a tidal wave of euphoria.

The French Quarter was full of strip joints, hustlers and shady drug dealers, with every bar blaring out great music. In the early hours of the morning, after gazing in awe at the Mississippi for the first time and thinking of Huckleberry Finn’s epic journey on the raft with the runaway slave Jim, we entered yet another bar and there was a marvellous old bluesman playing brilliant electric guitar. By then I was so elated and disoriented that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to encounter the ghosts of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong here in the city that gave birth to jazz. And I half expected Blanche Dubois to totter over to me and ask me for a light, with the words, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’

The trouble with these memories is that they are so blurred by the booze, and I long to return to New Orleans sober and experience it afresh. I’d like to visit the Preservation Hall where Dixieland jazz still thrives and take a voyage  on one of the Mississippi riverboats where Satchmo honed his skills as a young man before moving on to even greater musical glories in Chicago.

New Orleans has been the home of so much great music over the years, with jazz later followed by rhythm and blues, rock and roll and terrific funk, and happily one of its greatest artists is still with us and at the top of his game in his 72nd year.

I refer to Doctor John, aka The Night Tripper, who has just received some of the best reviews of a career that stretches back to the 1950s. Under his real name Mac Rebennack he was a busy hustler, session-man and songwriter in New Orleans in his teens. He first came to wider renown with his extraordinary album Gris-Gris (1968), which fused rhythm and blues, voodoo mysticism and Mardi Gras chants to extraordinary effect. The hippies loved its weirdness, but unlike many once fashionable albums of the period, Gris-Gris hasn’t dated and still sounds as rich and strange as it ever did, especially during the hauntingly spooky track ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’ that never fails to send shivers down my spine.

Over the years Dr John has produced albums of blues and boogie-woogie piano, covers of classic r&b numbers, a tribute to Duke Ellington and polemical songs about the authorities’ shambolic reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

But his new album, Locked Down, which once again sees the good Doctor bedecked in Mardi-Gras costume and voodoo talismans on the cover, is a return to the weird and disconcerting. Produced and partnered by Dan Auerbach, of the hip blues band the Black Keys, the music has a snarling energy and a sense of angry alienation about it as well as some fabulously exciting guitar licks from the band. Dr John’s great growl of a voice is used to terrific effect, but after all the bleakness, the album ends first with a song of repentance to his children for his inadequacy as a parent, and then with an affirmation of his faith in God.

In lesser hands these final tracks might have seemed schmaltzy. But after the rackety life Dr John has lived — he endured years of hell as a heroin addict and lost a finger in a shootout — they strike me as the deeply moving testament of a man who has been through hell and emerged the stronger for the experience.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.