In late August 2005, Kevin O’Day played his last weekly show at Ray’s, a luxurious glass-walled club atop the World Trade Center. Little did the cocktail loungers in this posh joint know that within days those glass windows would be blown to bits by Hurricane Katrina. The band played intelligent, well-crafted music at first, perfectly suited to the setting, so the tone was fairly subdued. Then, at the close of the second set, the lanky figure of Big Chief Alfred Doucette snaked through the crowd and electrified the proceedings with his signature tune, “Marie Laveau,” a funky invocation of the voodoo queen sung to the unforgettable folk melody “Little Liza Jane.”
That song leads off what is remarkably Doucette’s debut album at the age of 67. He sounds like he’s been doing it all his life, and in a sense he has, chanting and singing as a member of the Flaming Arrows Warriors. Doucette is a charismatic performer with a strong and quirky tenor voice that is characterized by a tart, stinging tonality, a sound that seems to spring off the funk arrangements and Mardi Gras Indian percussion he favors as his back-up.
The album feels like a soundtrack to a Mardi Gras party, with its uptempo pulse, frequent references to Indian parades and Carnival themes and considered mixture of party hearty originals with classics from the New Orleans canon. Doucette avoids the lethal trap of relying on that material’s familiarity to carry him, taking care to draw the listener’s attention to the singer, not the song. It’s a tightrope walk on the cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” which has become a standard New Orleans cover, but Doucette pulls it off with a riveting vocal over a mesmerizing rhythm track. Similarly, the Nevilles’ “Fire on the Bayou” poses the nearly insurmountable task of not sounding like a copy, but Doucette manages to subtly emphasize its celebration of Mardi Gras Indian culture in a way that allows him to lay claim to the tune.
Doucette’s most impressive work places him in the realm of local musicians who don’t just do covers but delight in treating the New Orleans canon as a series of tropes that can be morphed into a myriad of musical shapes. His version of the classic “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” one of the most powerful songs in the canon, avoids the overstatement and hamhandedness that so often accompany its performance. There’s simply no improving on the simplicity of joyful expression condensed into Jessie Hill’s powerful original performance, and Doucette plays it close to the vest, using a dramatic vibrato in his voice at certain points in the contours of the melody and eschewing the “Oh Whoa Oh Oh” chorus, which he shrewdly holds back until midway through the next song, “Let the Good Times Roll,” when its unexpected appearance works like an illusionist’s trick.
I guess it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that a man who ran the Night Cap, one of the legendary clubs in this city’s history, trained racehorses to run at the Fair Grounds and led a Mardi Gras Indian tribe among other accomplishments should unveil such a fully realized side of his life at his age. It could only happen in New Orleans.