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N'Awlinz Dis, Dat, or D'Udda (2004)

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Nicholas Payton

N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or d'Udda is a very good record, but it could have been a great one. One has to wonder if the idea of having all these high-profile guest vocalists was Dr. John's, Blue Note's, or producer Stewart Levine's, in order to follow the 21st century trendiness of having "celebrity" guests on a session. This is Mac Rebennack's homeboy album, a tribute to his city and its players. He's recorded some in New Orleans, to be sure, but never has he been able to make use of the Crescent City's greatest arranger, Wardell Quezergue, to such an extent. In addition, the great Doctor was able to enlist Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, Nicholas Payton, Dave Bartholemew, Eddie Bo, Walter Wolfman Washington, Snooks Eaglin, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Alfred "Uganda" Roberts, Willie Tee, and a huge slew of players to help him out on canonical N.O. repertoire. The sheer number of percussionists on this set is staggering and welcome. On nuggets like "When the Saints Go Marching In," sung funeral style, the Davell Crawford Singers and the Quezergue horns kick it with the rhythm section and front line. "St. James Infirmary" has Bo second-lining the band as he duets with Mac. The Cousin Joe (Pleasant Joseph) tunes like "Life's a One Way Ticket," Bartholomew's "The Monkey," and Mac's own brilliant "Shango Tango" smolder with that strutting, finger-poppin' R&B. So what's the problem? The lame, completely lifeless vocals of Randy Newman, a track with B.B. King and Willie Nelson, and Nelson on his own on three tracks that will remain nameless mar something so beautifully done that it otherwise might have been one of the finest New Orleans records since the early '60s. There are other guest vocalists who bring home the bacon on duets with Dr. John -- Mavis Staples on "Lay My Burden Down," Cyril Neville on the amazing read of Robert Gurley's "Marie Laveau," and Rebbenack's closer, "I'm Goin" Home," are stellar. And King even rises to the occasion on his duet with Mac on "Hen Layin' Rooster." Dr. John is in amazing voice here, his piano playing is knife-edge tough and funky, and his performances are so inspired that they are perhaps career-defining. Three out of 18 cuts is minuscule after all, and the rest of this set is so badass that it should be purchased regardless. After all, what is the remote control for? It's a contender to be sure, but it could have been a champion. ~ Thom Jurek