New Orleans native John “Papa” Gros (pronounced grow) has spent more than a quarter-century behind the piano championing the music of the Big Easy. He turns over a new leaf with his second solo album, River’s on Fire, which is set for release August 26th. It’s a record that mixes the sounds of rock & roll, funk and rootsy Americana into a genre-bending gumbo that carries on the tradition of New Orleans, both honoring its past and helping to shape its future.
Inspired by hometown hero and longtime colleague Allen Toussaint, who passed away while Gros was recording the album on the Vermilion bayou in southwest Louisiana, River’s on Fire is John’s first release since his former band, Papa Grows Funk, disbanded in 2013. The quintet held down a weekly residency for more than a dozen years at the famous Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown New Orleans, mixing the smooth sophistication of a jazz quintet with the wild, anything-goes spirit of Mardi Gras. Papa Grows Funk released six critically-acclaimed albums along the way, including Needle in the Groove, which was co-produced by Toussaint — with Gros leading the charge as the group’s front man, songwriter and organ player.
River’s on Fire finds John shifting his songwriting focus back to the instrument that started his lifelong musical journey – the piano. The album reaches far beyond Papa Grows Funk’s groove-based sound and offers listeners a bit of everything — party songs, melancholy numbers, funk tunes and upbeat rockers. The record even finds Gros putting a new spin on “House of Love,” which was originally released on Papa Grows Funk’s Shakin’ album. This time, he revises the track’s groove and focuses more on its sharp, nuanced songwriting.
“Before River’s on Fire, it had been a long time since I had done any songwriting on the piano”, John explains. “Previously, I had done most of my songwriting on guitar. I found that it forced me to focus on simpler chord choices and arrangements. The piano allows me the luxury to create more sophisticated compositions. With the keys I can focus on a balancing act- juggling between complexity and simplicity, while keeping the priority on the lyrics and melody.”
Working with top-shelf collaborators like Grammy award winning co-producer Tracey Freeman (Harry Connick, Jr., ReBirth Brass Band), Grammy award winning mixer Trina Shoemaker (Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow) and guitarist Brian Stoltz (Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers), River’s On Fire finds Gros showcasing his talent on the keys and also furthering his well-deserved reputation as one of New Orleans’ most notable songwriters. Each song has its own distinct personality, with the influence of Allen Toussaint serving as the common denominator or unifying ingredient. River’s on Fire is one life-long Big Easy troubadour and composer paying tribute to another.
“Those are big shoes to fill and big shoes to follow,” John says of Toussaint. “That was the plan, though: to follow Allen’s footsteps with this record. Every song has his stamp on it, whether it’s an obvious line or a subtle trick. I was paying homage to my mentor all along the way.”
Throughout his career, Gros has been a bandleader. A sideman. A singer. An instrumentalist. With River’s on Fire, he becomes a solo artist once again. Just as New Orleans, America’s favorite river town, has had a resurgence recently so has John “Papa” Gros. His role is different, but the goal remains the same: to honor the music he’s been living his whole life, and to add his own page to the New Orleans history book. “I think this album symbolizes both my passion for my music and my love of this town”, Gros muses. “Urban Dictionary defines “Fire” as someone doing something great that is unable to be stopped. I hope Toussaint is smiling down on me from above, urging me forward.”