Mac Rebennack, Jr., known more commonly by his stage name Dr. John, is alive and well. He’s 71, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has a cayenne-flavored legacy that includes over 20 albums, and has collaborated with Gregg Allman, Sonny & Cher, Allen Toussaint, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and countless others throughout his career. Is there any musician as underappreciated?
2012 finds the king of the bayou still killing it, this time with Dan Auerbach at the helm of his latest album, Locked Down. Listening to the energy and spunk of its ten tracks makes you wonder why greats like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Neil Young sound so tired lately, although to be fair, they weren’t working with The Black Keys’ frontman either.
Auerbach’s decision to gather Dr. John with younger musicians and to encourage some of the most personal material of his career has resulted in some undeniable chemistry. Locked Down sounds retro yet modern with a gritty drive, much like The Black Keys themselves, but with an extra dose of Louisiana flair and Rebennack’s expert navigation of the keyboard. Title track “Locked Down” sets a muddy groove atop Motown-style background singers, playful keys, and a background jangle that might be spoons or chimes or something else. It’s a party but it’s also serious, as if Mac and Dan are men on a no-nonsense mission to find the very soul of Cajun blues and funk, and inject its essence into the studio. Listener, you can have your crawfish, but you better be prepared to eat it too. While chanting “Geaux Saints” and fending off alligators.
If “Locked Down” searches for the soul of the swamp, then second track “Revolution” reaches into its chest and pulls out its heart Temple of Doom-style. A baritone sax puts forth a sleazy voodoo hook while Rebennack protests the “blind eyes of justice,” “deaf ears of power,” and “dumb moves of money”—evoking echoes of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” or Bruce Springsteen’s [insert any song from Wrecking Ball]. The bass rumbles against a cool-as-ice drum beat until the song stalls halfway and the doctor growls “Let’s all just pray on it right now…” before launching into a Doors-like organ solo. For its relevant message and insanely catchy groove, “Revolution” might be one of the songs of the year.
In fact, Rebennack, Auerbach and friends performed “Revolution” recently on Jimmy Fallon, which you can check out here.
“Getaway” is another album highlight, showcasing a blistering guitar solo and furiously skittish drums. It’s a great example of a track where all the musicians are on the same page, wielding their weapons with great skill, but never hogging the spotlight. “Ice Age” is as close to “vintage” Dr. John as you’ll find on the album; “Ain’t no age of innocence,” he snarls over yet another swampy blues/funk hybrid. “You Lie” offers a blues guitar riff that has Auerbach’s DNA all over it, punctuated by grumbly horns and tight drum syncopation. The album ends on “God’s Sure Good,” the most personal and soulful song of the collection, which wears its gospel influence proudly.
The dynamic Dan Auerbach creates on Locked Down works wonders for Dr. John, whose experience and wizened approach to songwriting meshes seamlessly with the talent and fresh perspectives of new musicians. There’s not a single misfire on the album, and it sounds like real music to me – music with a soul. It’s jambalaya for the ears, so grab some tabasco sauce and enjoy one of the best of 2012 so far.
(1) “Locked Down”
(4) “Ice Age”
(6) “Kingdom of Izzness”
(7) “You Lie”
(10) “God’s Sure Good”