Presented as a piano-focused album paying tribute to the grooves of the late Allen Toussaint, John “Papa” Gros‘s solo disc River’s on Fire spreads a recipe of funk, rock, and Americana with a painless spoonful of jam-band jamming. The Delta sprawl of these original songs suggests variously the leanness of JJ Grey and Mofro, the stark blues of John Hammond Jr., the jump and flow of Dr. John, and the organ-glimmer soul of Al Green.
Gros’s keyboard mastery is evident throughout, but though it’s a solo album it’s very much a band effort, with tight arrangements, crisp work from guitar and rhythm section, and sparkling choral backing vocals in tracks romantic (“House of Love”), bitter (“Why’d Ya Do It?”) and starkly rootsy (“Shaky Frank”) alike. And while Gros’s lead vocals don’t have as much rich character as those of a Dr. John or a JJ Grey, there’s plenty of satisfying substance in the album’s total gumbo of tasty musicianship and inspired songwriting.
From chunky funk jams (“Crazy,” “Sugar and Ice”) and old-timey New Orleans piano (“Shaky Frank”) to lyrical paeans (“Her Love Can’t Be Denied”) and even a touch of taut reggae (“Why’d Ya Do It?”), Gros and his ace band get the feet tapping and stir the soul. With so few weak points, the album can even afford to bury one of its smokiest and most fun tracks, “Cocaine and Chicken Fricassée,” near the end. It’s easy to forgive the clichéd lyrics of “Two Little Angels” (“spread your wings and fly”); who among us doesn’t have a soft underbelly?
The waltz-ballad “Same Old Same” brings to mind some of the classic tracks by The Band, and the album closes with the insistent gospel-like groove of “This New Year’s Eve.” Both songs carry an especially large dose of the timeless flavor of the whole album. While many of these 11 tracks roam beyond the traditional sounds of New Orleans R&B, they’re bathed in the spirit of that most musically magical and magically musical of cities. Toussaint would have been proud.