critic’s pick 300: dr. john, ‘original album series’

dr john 2Great music, we are told, lives forever. Too bad that’s not always the case for great recordings, at least not in physical form.

Among the prime casualties of the digital age are the back catalogues of many influential artists from rock, folk and Americana fields. History may look kindly upon their work. But unless you’re The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, your once-cherished work has been discounted out of existence as the demand for compact discs continues its downward spiral.

An example of such loss leader philosophy has been the Original Album Series, a Rhino Records imprint that offers no frills repackaging of five or so albums by a single artist for as little as $18. Die hard fans have no need for such projects as they likely own the recordings already. Younger, novice fans see music only as a downloadable commodity. So despite the bargain pricing of the Original Album Series entries, we are also seeing how grossly devalued historic recorded music has become.

But then we come to a new – and, as of now, import-only – Original Album Series collection devoted to the music of master New Orleans psychedelic funkster Dr. John. Its price tag, in keeping with the series, is meager (under $25, even as an import) with the packaging consisting of little more than miniature cardboard slipcases of the original artwork without any further annotation.

But in the case of Dr. John’s music, the collection is something of a watershed. This Original Album Series entry offers five of his first six albums (1970s’ Remedies, his third record, is curiously omitted).  The availability of all this music over the years has been, at best, irregular. At worst, it has been non-existent. The sleeper sets – 1968’s Babylon and 1971’s The Sun, Moon and Herbs only enjoyed brief domestic releases over the past four decades. Import copies of just one of those records were vastly more costly than this entire five-disc set. Other records, like the masterful 1968 debut album Gris Gris and 1972’s roots-directed Gumbo, were more scattered in their availability. Only the breakthrough work, 1973’s In the Right Place, remained consistently in print.

Gathering all these recordings in one place, even if it is part of a budget packaging project like the Original Album Series, is something of an unintended triumph that allows us to trace the rise of Dr. John from a psychedelic carnival shaman (Gris Gris, Babylon and The Sun, Moon and Herbs) to a scholarly New Orleans piano ambassador (Gumbo) to the harbinger of a new New Orleans groove (In the Right Place).

To the folks at Rhino, this was probably just another way to discount the past. But to serious fans of New Orleans psychedelia, what we have hit upon here is a glorious though somewhat accidental motherload.

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