Dr. John, Locked Down (Nonesuch)
No, Mac Rebennack didn’t come into this world in the guise of the hoodoo-voodoo character, Dr. John. Instead, the New Orleans-born pianist, a musical byproduct of the piano professors and blues, R&B and jazz musicians he heard growing up in the Crescent City, remade himself as the First Physician of Funk on in the late ’60s, between the cracks of his budding career as a West Coast session player.
Starting strong with the albums Gris-Gris and Babylon, the former guitarist and initially reluctant singer grew into the new role, as a purveyor of grooves steeped in Nola funk and story-songs referencing the mysteries rooted in Louisiana muck and Vieux Carre streets. Since then, there have been retrenchments, periods in New York and New Orleans, collaborations with rock royalty and hometown locals, and a career as New Orleans’ musical ambassador to the world. He’s worn that particular cape well, although there have been occasions when Dr. John has fallen into ruts — his music has sometimes suffered from a bit of self-cannibalism, as if the Dr. John created for the tourists took over from the nominally more authentic Dr. John (itself, of course, a masquerade).
Then came Katrina and its terrible aftermath, and Dr. John the Avenger was (re)born, using his music and instantly identifiable voice to rail righteously against the forces that conspired to bring a great and beautiful city to its knees. It was probably inevitable, then, that the Good Doctor would get his mojo back, in a big way. He was due.
And so it’s been done, with a little help from the right producer at the right time. Black Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, who, in addition to everything else, amped the 10 tunes on Locked Down with his six-string lines, recorded the new music in Nashville, with a well-tooled rhythm section and horns in tow.
The sticky rhythms trick their way into the title track, which opens the disc with an impressionistic tale of a desperate soul on the down and out, maybe issuing a warning to those who might write him off. The fuzzy bass guitar and fatback drums could have been pulled straight from an old-school R&B track, leavened with screechy guitar, background vocals, and, near the end, mellow vibraphone lines. That vintage, but not musty, feel, continues on “Revolution,” its world-going-to-hell narrative bolstered by greasy guitars and a twirling keyboard line, all offset by a thick backbeat and crunchy bari sax.
The narrator of “Big Shot,” riding a bouncy beat and sometimes running smack into a wooly wall of horns, mixes his swaggering with a big of self-mocking: “Don’t oversell it.” And the raucous “Getaway,” with its tale of being “strung out on thrills, living wild,” ends in an explosion of acid-washed guitar; here, and elsewhere, there’s a real sonic edginess to the music that hasn’t been a factor on a Dr. John album in forever.
The second half of the disc is similarly engaging. “Kingdom of Izzness,” located somewhere “in the middle of nowhere,” thrives on a slow and chunky keys-led funk groove, with upright bass, reminiscent of MMW, while the hypnotic, African-influenced “Eleggua” is built on boiling-over percussion, a sticky, repeating guitar and bass riff, flute trills, and some untranslatable vocal declarations – something, you know, about “Tricknology.”
And Locked Down is capped with “God’s Sure Good,” a bluesy, sort of non-denominational salute to the singer’s higher power. “God don’t be resting.” And, at 71, neither is Dr. John, back with a collection of brash, in-your-face songs on an album sure to go down as a late-career highlight.