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"Things Happen That Way" by Dr. John

New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz but one would be hard pressed to find it lacking the soul needed to sing the blues, especially when it comes to Dr. John’s final album, Things Happen That Way. Malcolm Rebennack Jr., or more commonly referred to by his stage name Dr. John, is a New Orleans based singer and songwriter known for his distinct approach to songwriting and unique stage presence.

Taking on the persona of “The Night Tripper” Dr. John gained notoriety through his unconventional style as well as his work with a multitude of renowned musicians such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, just to mention a few. With such a vast catalog, spanning nearly six decades, Dr. John sought to reconnect with his roots of New Orleans R&B while establishing a record that pays homage to the artists who influenced and inspired his illustrious career. Things Happen That Way is that sound, that perfect mix of rhythm and blues, of country and western, and of passion and soul, presented with that signature style only Dr. John can deliver. Although a posthumous release, Things Happen That Way sees Dr. John in his element and at his peak, offering an uncompromising sound true to the artist with authentic messages of faith, reflection, and acceptance.

The opening track “Funny How Time Slips Away” embodies the rhythmic, easy-going blues a listener would come to expect of Dr. John while employing lyrics that embrace the passage of time into old age. Originally written by Willie Nelson, this song establishes the general scope of the album in terms of theme and composition. Many of the tracks focus on lessons learned throughout Dr. John’s life and the music is predominantly structured on the basis of blues with a strong influence of country and western. Dr. John’s iconic piano work on this track is backed up by an ensemble of horns and supporting vocals which ride a steady drum beat, true to the sound of his New Orleans roots.

Having the goal of dedicating this album to the artists who truly inspired him, Dr. John was eager to work with the one and only, Willie Nelson, which came to fruition on the track “Gimmie That Old Time Religion” a cover of a prominent gospel song dating back to the late 19th century. This track not only represents his great admiration for Willie Nelson and the massive impact he had on Dr. John’s musical evolution but also for the impression made upon him by gospel music. The lyrics remain generally consistent with the original, signifying Dr. John’s devotion to his faith, something that remains constant for him through the passing of time.

Dr. John also wished to convey the power of influence through generational features of both Willie Nelson and his son, Luke Nelson, in an expression of the past leading to the future. A remake of the closing track featured on his 1968 album Gris-Gris “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” is an atmospheric tune with a driving bassline and an unsettling ambience, making it one of the most distinct songs on this album and a bit more reminiscent of the music he used to produce during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Although Dr. John never had the opportunity to work directly with Luke Nelson, his eldest daughter and owner of his estate, Karla Pratt, arranged for Luke to be featured on this track shortly following her father’s passing.

As a six-time Grammy Award winner and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John was nothing short of a legend. For his final album he wanted his audience to appreciate the simple pleasures in life while embracing the hardships that come with them. He wanted to spotlight the significance of inspiration and the many sources in which he found it throughout his life. One final ode to the influences that made him so great. Finally, he wanted his sound to be felt one last time, and not just the sound of who he was during his final days but of all the sounds he has been throughout his long and successful career. Things Happen That Way, Dr. John’s swan song, a grand compilation of the influence he leaves behind.

Reviewed by Dylan Borsos


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