Sunday , December 10 2023
While many of these 11 songs roam well beyond the traditional sounds of New Orleans R&B, they're bathed in the spirit of that most musically magical of cities.

Music Review: John ‘Papa’ Gros – ‘River’s on Fire’

John 'Papa' Gros, photo by Zach Smith photography
John ‘Papa’ Gros, photo by Zach Smith photography

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.


About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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