Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Having watched the glorious images of New Orleans saying goodbye to their very own Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, it was daunting for me to try to do justice to his legacy with a piece on “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” arguably the best known of his songs. Scarcely the most representative, it was the highlight, I guess, of his 1968 debut Gris Gris, owing more to the voodoo priest persona that gave him his break than to his latter-day body of work. It’s the song that casual fans, upon hearing the news of his death, might have known best through cover versions (by Humble Pie or by Paul Weller, depending on their age) as they asked who he was. (“The guy from Treme“ might actually be a commoner answer………)
But is it any good? Well, yes, of course it’s good, nothing quite like it having made the charts previously, and it was a hit – just not for its writer.
Marsha Hunt – I Walk on Gilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
That fell to Marsha Hunt, fresh from the London stage production of Hair, and she certainly had some hair, eye-turningly so, famous perhaps more for the eyes that turned her way, such as those of Mick Jagger, with whom she had a child. As the first, I think it deserves a place here; it was certainly the one I first heard.
Much as I liked this full-on pop-soul version, I think it demonstrates the difficulties in covering the song. The melody is pretty one-dimensional and there is little you can do with the vocals other than to turn up or down the voodoo scariness. The arrangement allows little tinkering with speed or style, or is it just that the bluegrass and disco versions weren’t made accessible to me? There isn’t even, as far as I can establish, a solo ukulele version. It is for this reason that most “Gilded Splinters” covers don’t cut it, at least to my ears. That includes the ones mentioned above: I loved the Humble Pie version when I was 14, that perhaps being the problem, my ears now craving a tad more subtlety. And Weller just tries too hard.
Johnny Jenkins – I Walk on Gilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
Johnny Jenkins, a pianist and bandleader who gave Otis Redding his first break, takes the route of turning up the scary. The opening track of his 1970 album, Ton-Ton Macoute, the name both of a Haitian boogey-man and of Papa Doc’s infamous secret police, it was clear where he was setting his stall. In fact, the album was initially going to be by Duane Allman, who plays all the guitar, but he got a call to hook up with his brother in the eponymous band and that was that. Jenkins, as musical director, picked up the slack and the credit. The pedigree of the musicianship shines through, with Jenkins coming over as a whole lot more down’n’dirty, in a swampy vibe, than the comparatively more show-biz take of Rebennack. (Hardly surprisingly, “Splinters” featured in the live sets of the Allmans‘ throughout their career, and it’s still in that of their offshoots, Tedeschi-Trucks and Gov’t Mule.)
Bluesiana Hot Sauce – I Walk on Gilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
Bluesiana Hot Sauce is the name of a 1993 album designed to almost follow on from Bluesiana Triangle, a 1989 project put together by producer Joe Ferry, and that had itself included Dr. John in its participants. Like that record, the aim was that musicians of varied backgrounds would come together and produce something altogether different. With a cast including harmonica maestro Toots Thielemans, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, and saxophonist Michael Brecker, propelled along by Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, this instrumental version offers a mild reggae skank that nearly disguises the song. Until the chorus.
The Flowerpot Men – I Walk on Gilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
The Flowerpot Men (no, not them) were a short-lived electronic group that came together briefly in the 1980s, producing a few EPs, this coming from one of them. Almost post-rock before the term came into use, this is certainly enthusiastic, bombing along at a greater lick than usual. I suspect they come under the heading of “you had to be there,” but I like their balls.
Papa Mali – I Walk on Gilded Splinters (Dr. John cover)
Finally, back to slow and foreboding, Papa Mali brings an altogether bluesier take to the party. Initially a Shreveport native, he has a staunch New Orleans pedigree, playing in and around the city since his early teens. A prolonged flirtation with reggae saw him in the Killer Bees for a decade, alongside Michael E. Johnson. Thereafter he alternated between solo releases, this song coming from his 2009 solo debut Thunder Chicken, since then playing alongside other stalwarts of the New Orleans scene, members of the Neville Brothers and the Meters, as well as a lasting musical relationship with the Grateful Dead’s drummer Bill Kreutzmann and their lyricist Robert Hunter. Anyone familiar with Texas blues band Omar & the Howlers might also recognize his guitar work, under his birth name of Malcolm Welbourne.
So, five good covers, without even troubling Cher (which actually isn’t that bad). Frankly, none quite shine over the original, but as an honorable mention, here is a live one which (even if only part of a segue) nearly does, from the city’s other standard bearers, the Neville Brothers.