John “Papa” Gros has seen a lot of personal growth over the past few years even as he’s had to deal with setbacks. After making the terrific Needle In the Groove and working with Allen Toussaint, Papa Grows Funk appeared set to reach the next level but the band inexplicably broke up. The story is well told in the film Doin’ It. After that, Gros was a super sub in several bands that really benefitted from his vocal and instrumental skills, but instead of taking the easy way out he returned to his solo career and made the terrific River’s On Fire. Gros took vocal lessons to improve the tone and range of his powerful tenor voice and on River’s… he sounded like a new man. The benefits of his vocal work are even more evident on his new album, Central City, which collects a wealth of local musicians and showcases the many sides of Gros’ musical abilities. There’s a strong link to the New Orleans R&B tradition which also reflects the influence of his father, Don Gros, who was a popular piano player on the West Bank a generation ago [see this issue’s BackTalk]. The vocal training really pays off on his cover of the Irma Thomas classic “It’s Raining,” which Gros sings with more passion than power, really nailing the high notes. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” is one of several odes to New Orleans on the record.
The song references the Dew Drop Inn and Poppa Stoppa:
It was a Central City rock ’n’ roll revolution/
Banging on pianos heard at every single show/
Benny and Bobby led that three ring chorus/
Singin all night long, “Don’t You Know It, Don’t You Know!”
Along similar lines is “Mardi Gras,” JPG’s contribution to the long list of carnival party songs, complete with a Mardi Gras Indian call-and-response chorus. The songs rolls along in splendid merriment as it catalogues the events you might catch on the street on Mardi Gras Day.
“All My Rivers,” one of two Alex McMurray songs on the record, also references Mardi Gras. McMurray’s other contribution, “Gone So Long,” captures the sweet spot of whimsicality somewhere along the seam where Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint intertwine.
Gros covers John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” with a traditional jazz feel—Don Vappie on banjo, Matt Perrine on tuba, Herlin Riley on drums, Tim Laughlin and Ray Moore on clarinets, Mark Braud on trumpet and Mark Mullins on trombone. Prine is a longtime favorite, and Gros had no idea that this would be his way of saying goodbye to a treasured influence.
The instrumental “Deep In the Mud” will delight fans of the hard-edged sound of Papa Grows Funk. Guitarist Brian Stoltz and bassist George Porter Jr. knock this one out of the park.
I thought “You Do It” was a love song to John’s wife Becky but it’s actually a love song to New Orleans music with specific references to Dr. John, Zigaboo Modeliste, Ed Volker of the Radiators and Irma Thomas. Gros loves New Orleans music almost as much as it loves him.
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SKU: JOHN "PAPA" GROS - CENTRAL CITY LP
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