Bobby Charles was a Cajun soul songwriter who scored during the early rock era with hits including See You Later Alligator and Walking to New Orleans. He also recorded sporadically: Shannon McNally discovered him via his self-titled 1972 album recorded with The Band. In 2007, three years before Charles’ death, McNally, Dr. John and the Lower 911 went into the studio with Charles and recorded Small Town Talk, an album of Charles covers that is just now seeing the light of day. McNally plays the album release show at 7:30 PM on May 17 at Joe’s Pub; $12 advance tix are still available as of today.
McNally has a history of collaborating with underrated New Orleans figures, most recently her intense 2011 Americana album, Western Ballad, with Mark Bingham. Though credited to her, you might consider this a great lost Night Tripper record. As you would imagine, it’s pretty funky. As you also might imagine, Charles’ songwriting turns out to be considerably more interesting than the top 40 fluff he’s best known for: his aphoristic turns of phrase have a surrealistic humor akin to Dr. John’s. It must be a New Orleans thing.
The opening track, Street People, sets a funky tone with bubbly organ and punchy horns courtesy of legendary New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue, an octogenarian at the time who has sadly left us since. McNally’s wry vocals dignify the hobo narrator’s point of view, soberly observing that “Some poeple would rather work: need people like that!”
The cynical country shuffle Can’t Pin a Color pairs the guitars of John Fohl with guest Luther Dickinson. “Tell a friend your deepest darkest secrets, watch how fast it spreads all over town,” McNally drawls. String of Hearts, an absolutely gorgeous, sophisticated duet with Vince Gill, has a lush string chart and some equally gorgeous piano from Mr. Rebennack. I Spent All My Money is a honkytonk song with a laid-back, funky edge courtesy of bassist David Barard and drummer Herman Ernest that contrasts with McNally’s vitriolic vocal.
Cowboys and Indians starts out as a rather somber take on American Indian-flavored rock a la Apache and then goes scampering with some surprisingly focused slide guitar from guest Derek Trucks. Will Sexton teams up with McNally on guitar on the sad, alienated country ballad Homemade Songs; then McNally picks up the pace on Long Face, a jaunty duet with Dr. John.
The slinky title track is a matter-of-fact commentary on petty jealousy. I Don’t Want to Know takes an outlaw country ballad and gives it a little slink as well: the tradeoffs between McNally’s tremoloing guitar and Dr. John’s piano are one of the album’s high points. Arguably Charles’ most-covered song, (I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do gets a purist swing jazz treatment. Love in the Worst Degree, another one of his more popular tunes, gets a ranchy, Stonesy interepretation. Save Me Jesus has the feel of a Vietnam War era song, an unexpectedly cynical, apocalyptic spin on a swaying gospel organ groove. The record winds up with Smile (So Glad), a soul shout reinvented as a classic Dr. John piano/organ romp, and the lush, jazzy, 70s style soul ballad I Must Be in a Good Place Now.
Does this album have legs beyond the old hippie/Relix/WFMU crowd? Absolutely. It’s a lot of fun and a good look at a songwriter whose more substantial side was overshadowed by his early success. And it’s noteworthy for being the final release by Dr. John and this version of the Lower 911, considering that Fohl and Barard are no longer in the band.