Listen: Dr. John's Locked Down
(Nonesuch Records, 2012)
In the deranged days of 1968, New Orleans musician Mac Rebennack decided to join the fun by dubbing himself Dr. John the Night Tripper, taking to the stage in a Mardi Gras Indian-inspired costume and making music thoroughly marinated in his hometown’s Afro-Caribbean musical traditions and religious lore.
In the decades that followed, Dr. John stayed that musical course, and even had a few pop hits along the way. On Locked Down, Dr. John, now 71, has submitted himself to the production guidance of 30-year-old Dan Auerbach, guitarist-singer of The Black Keys. The result is an album that starts from New Orleans but ventures up-river to Memphis and even back across the waters to Mother Africa.
Sonically, the album is all of an Afro-pop piece. There are percussive guitar riffs, punctuating blasts of horns, and layers of polyrhythmic percussion, all held together by a slippery bass guitar. Even the keyboard is played as a percussion instrument, with Dr. John abandoning the New Orleans stride piano style that has dominated his recent work for choppy bursts of Farfisa organ.
Dr. John continues his recent penchant for political lyrics here. One song asks the musical question, “Rebellion, revolution, is it the final solution?” while another claims that the “KKK and CIA [are] all playing in the same cage.”
But the record closes with unfamiliar notes from the old Night Tripper—humility and gratitude. There’s a public apology to the artist’s neglected children and grandchildren. A closing track, “God’s Sure Good,” proclaims, “He taught me how to live and let live. I’m so thankful; the breath of life he gives. . . . I listen to his still small voice; I believe I’ve made the perfect choice.” And by then the listener is grateful, too, for Mac Rebennack and for this album.
This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 6, page 42).