Dr John – Locked Down (Nonesuch)

It would be tempting to describe this excellent new album as a comeback by the ol’ Night Tripper, except that Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) has been making consistently fine music for quite a while now. Recent albums, such as his 2008 release, The City That Care Forgot, have found the good doctor railing against the injustices and indignities suffered by the residents of his beloved New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That anger is still evident in Locked Down, but it is tempered with some of the funkiest, infectious and accessible music that the wily veteran has been involved in.

A big part of the story behind Locked Down is the involvement of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Dan and the Doctor jammed at last year’s Bonnaroo Festival and found they clicked musically. So, Auerbach has taken on the production duties and surrounded Dr. John with band of young musicians who have jelled into a tight, exciting unit. The musicians are: drummer Max Weissenfeldt, who recently recorded with The Heliocentrics, sax and keyboard player Leon Michels, a former Daptone resident, who backed Sharon Jones and now fronts the El Michels Affair, bass player Nick Movshon, another Daptone alumni and guitarist Brian Olive, a former member of The Greenhornes who now has a solo career (Auerbach has produced him as well). Gospel singers The McCrary Sisters add their voices to the mix when called upon.

All ten tracks were written by Dr. John, Auerbach and the band, indicating that the sessions were a truly collaborative affair, where everyone got their licks in. The first song, Locked Down demonstrates how wonderfully these musicians have locked in with one another. After a few seconds of some spooky effects, a deep bass line rolls in followed by Dr. John’s organ and then the rest of the band falls in to a solid groove. Dr. John’s distinctive voice is in fine form as he growls about “dealin’ from the bottom of the deck”. The groove is irresistible and to top things off, Auerbach turns in a stinging guitar solo.

Revolution finds the righteous doctor singing out against the “blind eyes of justice, the deafness of power”. But that doesn’t stop the band from sounding like they are having the time of their lives. It’s another killer groove and this time Dr. John steps up to deliver a tasty organ solo.

Things get even better with Big Shot. Prefaced by an old-time jazz intro, this one features a classicNew Orleans groove (the album was recorded inNashville) and plenty of attitude. “I’m the big shot, I do my thing in my own kind of style”, boasts The Doctor. Of course, he’s right. “Never gonna another big shot like me”. Amen to that.

Ice Age opens with a enticing guitar figure, then a slinky, voodoo enhanced groove kicks in. “This ain’t no age of innocence” intones Rebennack as he compares the CIA to the KKK.

Getaway features the doctor’s most impassioned vocal performance. And just as you think the track is finished, Auerbach comes in with a smoking guitar solo.

I could go on forever. Each tune here stands out in its own way. But the one constant is the groove…it never falters, never fails to move the body and the soul. Drummer Max Weissenfeldt finds a unique approach to each song, keeping them all fresh.

The album ends on an uplifting note with God’s So Good, putting the McCrary Sisters to good use, mixing soul, gospel and Dr. John’s own take on the mysteriousNew Orleans vibe.

It has been noted that this album marks a return to the Night Tripper recordings of the late 60s and early 70s. Certainly, the cover photo, with Dr. John in full headdress would indicate this. That vibe does come through on Locked Down, but where those albums featured long, sprawling jams; this one has concise, tighter songs. However that same sense of joy, celebration and revelling in the funk still prevails.

Rock on, Dr. John.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Locked Down from the new album: