SUN + MOON + HERBS
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:1 October 2021
From the golden art deco inspired cover through the fascinating story of a planned three LP magnum opus, The Sun Moon and Herbs is a highlight in the long career of the New Orleans legend 'Mac' Rebennack, aka Dr John, The Night Tripper.
Blending the good Doctor’s various styles and influences into an ecstatic musical gumbo, the album pulses with voodoo power and sways to licentious grooves, taking the listener on a colourful — sometimes breathless — journey through the mystical geography of N’awlins and environs.
Opening with Rebennack’s jellyroll piano, "Black John The Conqueror" soon builds to a celebration of mythic proportions, the female backing vocals giving the Doctor’s sermon a gospel tinge while the horns blast out jazzy hosannas. "Where Ya At Mule" is a bluesy jazz tune that rolls like the ornery beast of burden carrying the singer back to his Creole love, while "Craney Crow" has a slow swamp groove so sensual you can see the steam rising.
It speaks volumes about Dr John’s sense of place that this evocative album was recorded not in the storied French Quarter of New Orleans, but at Trident Studios in London. What’s more, the slide guitar slithering in and out of many of the songs is played by none other than Eric Clapton, joined on some tracks by Derek and the Dominos colleagues. Having said that, the punchy brass parts are played by the revered Memphis Horns, closing a loop back to the US of A.
Side two of the LP is just as strong as the first, a highlight being the funky, hypnotic "Zu Zu Mamou", creating an atmosphere so thick you’d need a machete to make an impression. You can clearly hear where Tom Waits got the inspiration for many of his vocal moves.
With admirable ambition, Dr John conceived The Sun Moon & Herbs as a three record concept album. He described it thus:
"The 'Sun' was the record you put on when you woke up in the morning; later, in the afternoon, you’d put on the 'Herbs'—the herbs you eat, the herbs you smoke, the herbs that heal you. And last would be the 'moon'—night music dedicated to the enchantment of the evening and the moon goddess. Real lunar-sea action."*
Dr John’s record company forced him to cut the epic back to a single album for the original 1971 release, but Rhino have recovered two entire LPs of material from the sessions. It’s a revelatory journey that will thrill Dr John fans attracting new converts along the way. While it is important to note that many of the 'new' tracks are works-in-progress or exploratory work-outs, having a roughness quite at odds with the well-produced album released fifty years ago, there is a great deal to enjoy here.
Side three is where we meet the new material. It begins strongly with "Home Boy Show Me The Way" which features a dancing flute and tasteful Clapton lines as it wanders along jungle paths. Some pieces—such as "Look What You’ve Done"—are polished enough to sound almost complete while others provide tasty glimpses of the musicians grooving in the studio. The ten minute early version of "Where Ya At Mule" is an example: Clapton’s guitar takes centre stage, sounding wonderfully free and soulful.
This isn’t the complete three album concept Rebennack conceived (quite a lot was lost), yet is a hugely enjoyable addition to the Dr John catalogue that could certainly soundtrack the kind of day The Night Tripper described. Add in beautiful cover art and informative notes and you have a rich package celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Sun Moon & Herbs in fine style.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021
* From "Under A Hoodoo Moon" by Mac "Dr John" Rebennack with Jack Rummel (St Martins Press, 1994), quoted in the cover notes of the 2021 Rhino/Atlantic re-issue.