Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. embodies so many of the positive aspects of New Orleans culture. A living legend under the stage name Dr. John, Rebennack has recorded over 20 albums, melding together everything from freakout R&B to slithery zydeco, persisting in the face of adversity (he switched to piano from guitar after catching a bullet in the finger), and always delivering something to dance to (for whatever feeling you can imagine). And though he’s now 71 years old, the grooves keep rolling out, Dr. John refusing to quit the supposedly young man’s game of funky soul. One of the bigger young men in the game, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, is along for the ride, producing and adding some guitar work.
The pairing came about after the two played together at last year’s Bonnaroo, a festival named after Rebennack’s 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo (which in turn is a term for some sort of party, down New Orleans way). This sort of huge age gap collaboration could have gone two ways: The younger musician introduces the legend to new genres and sounds, or he embraces the idol’s roots and runs with it. Auerbach goes the latter route, returning the oft-experimenting Rebennack to the dark-tinged, mystic party of his first few albums, in which Dr. John also went by the Night Tripper. The album cover evokes that smoky, shaman, wild man persona very well, and the contents follow through on the promise.
Dr. John sounds as comfortable as he did on those old records, his voice sitting in the middle of the accomplished sidemen, bringing the message to the gathered party. That’s not to say that the disc could pass for one of those Night Tripper albums; Rebennack is certainly older, his voice slightly weathered, more sage than provocateur.The piano is largely replaced by keyboards and organ, and the horns rich and low, choices that makes this version of the Dr.’s music a trippier, darker place than he’s been in a while.
The grimy, resonant baritone sax and ’70s organ on “Revolution” set the voodoo party off, Dr. John talking about losing his sanity, the whole thing a call to arms. “The revolution is in the final solution,” he repeats, singing from the middle of a world filled with illusions and confusions. The lyrics may focus on dark times, but the trilling sax, funky rhythm, and scorching organ solo combined with his insistence that we “just pray on it right now” suggest that the New Orleans church of funk is the place to be if this kind of bad stuff goes down.
That same dark uncertainty runs through the worrisome “Ice Age”, John crooning about the “KKK, CIA, all playing in the same gig.” His voice stretches over a larger range than a 71-year-old’s should, dipping for growls and reaching up to thick yelps. He embraces the New Orleans accent at times, as on the heavily rhythmic, funk-fueled “Eleggua”. Dr. John’s never been one to have tricks up his sleeve, displaying them in all their soulful glory right at the front.
Auerbach’s Black Keys lo-fi garage rock roots be damned, the production on the disc is nothing short of lush. The title track features many of the hallmarks, silvery backing vocals pouring out of the speakers, one of Auerbach’s own rip-roaring guitar solos, and even a vibraphone solo near the end. On the reflective album closer, “God’s Sure Good”, John’s keys become a rippling organ, and the smoky backup singers are replaced by a full-fledged gospel choir.
Dr. John and Auerbach come together to capture a rich, evocative, almost apocalyptic party on Locked Down, an album that makes you dance while wondering about the state of the world. There’s a party here, sure, but one that has no choice but to acknowledge the shadows floating around. The team-up works wonders for Dr. John, proving he’s still got the weird power, and it does the same for Auerbach, proving his range of ability is deeper than some expected.
Essential Tracks: “Revolution”, “Locked Down”, and “Eleggua”