Technically, this record is a 2013 release (it came out last September), but, if’n I get a chance to vote in any record polls in 2014, it’s sure to be in my Top 10. My decision will be justified: it’s on a tiny New Orleans label (One More Time), it’s distributed by CDBaby, it features no mega-stars, it arrived with no hoopla (when I bought my copy at Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, the very well-seasoned owner couldn’t even get excited about it when I asked about it), and, well, it’s out of New Orleans, the still-fabulous music scene of which may be back in the public eye thanks to Treme but still gets very, very little critical love and mainstream coverage. So: we may as well call it a 2014 release.
Now that I’ve expended a paragraph on a barely-necessary justification…some background. Dollis is the son of one of the most legendary big chiefs in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, the chief, in fact, who sang lead on the 1970 45 “Handa Wanda,” the first commercially released Indian chant. That single was the first of three significant such releases of the decade, the others being long-players released by two competing tribes, The Wild Magnolias (1974) and The Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976). If you’ve never heard ’em, they feature some of the straight-on greasiest funk of their time, with P-Funk, riot-era Sly, and JB its only equal. Each record features only traditional Indian chants, with only two overlaps, and those so differently arranged you might not notice; these chants deserve your attention, because their subtext is defiance, bravery, and endurance, themes that at this point in America’s racial history have gained deeper, more painful, and more inspiring resonance. Each record features a different famous force of funk: on Magnolias, the great guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who might pre-date JB in his history with the style; on Tchoupitoulas, the quirky and inventive Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Each record features a local-legend producer: the ’74 record, Willie “Thank You, John” Turbington, the ’76 record Valhalla-bound songwriter/pianist/arranger Allen Toussaint. Each record, my friends, is a stone classic. Unfortunately, as far as your average music consumer is concerned, that would seem to be the end of Mardi Gras Indian music on record. However, there has been a steady stream of these records released across the last three decades, from further releases by Dollis, Sr., and his Wild Magnolias as well as the Golden Eagles tribe in the ’80s (they received a smidgen of roots-music ink) to the extremely obscure but excellent 1997 Flaming Arrows’ Here Come the Indians! and the vaguely 21st-century set of tracks laid down by the Hundred & One Runners on the tiny Mardi Gras Records’ 2012 Best of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Like Western swing, this little subgenre seldom fails to deliver pleasure, delightful camaraderie, and the urge to get the hell up and dance.
Which finally brings us to the release in question. In view of both the general lack of consumer and critical attention given to Mardi Gras Indian music and the historical evolution of the subgenre, the record is a very significant one. Bo, Jr. and his producer Joe Gelini have achieved a rare trick: usually, when an artist or producer tries to “rock up” a non-rock genre, the result is a tasteless, unsubtle, desperate aural brew that disappoints everyone involved, specifically including listeners; here, the frequent dabs and splashes of guitar crunch, supplied by St. Louisan Mike Zito and Brothers’ son Devon Allman, are nicely accompanied by deftly mixed and soulfully played dobro, fiddle, piano, and horns (none familiar aspects of the subgenre), as well as the usual funky percussion and tambourine. The intelligence and touch behind the conception, playing, and production, best exemplified by the Dollis’ opening “We Come to Rumble,” makes A New Kind of Funk the best chance yet for Mardi Gras Indian music to jump off the island of esoterica onto the mainland of Americana. That is, if the project had more commercial and media support behind it–a guy can dream. Also, Dollis’ decision to weave in his own originals and Indian-style covers of classic New Orleans jazz (“Tootie Ma,” “Little Liza Jane”), r&b (“Hey Now, Baby” featuring fine Professor Longhair-style piano from Tom Worrell), and soul (a not-entirely-successful “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”) with traditional battle cries like “Fire Water Big Chief Got Plenty” and “Hell Out the Way” pays off big in two ways, appealing honestly to outside fans as well as expertly connecting four Crescent City musical traditions–and helping to keep the music in a state of evolution.
A New Kind of Funk is an exciting, spirited, and various set that deserves much more attention than it likely will get, and it comes at a time when the tribes are struggling to keep that ever-infernal “younger generation” interested in their rich history of exuberant and stylish resistance. If the kids followed that history back to mid-1800s Congo Square, where it started, they might just discover it is the wellspring of their music. And, oldsters, you might find it’s also the wellspring of yours. If you do buy this album, and like it, please please please go right on ahead (or back, I should say) to The Wild Magnolias and The Wild Tchoupitoulas. You will feel the fire of a sound that’s kept folks off their knees for a long, long time.