Locked Down Dr. John (Nonesuch/Warner)
“Ain’t never was, ain’t never gonna be, anotha big shot like me.” So proclaims, rightly, Malcolm John Rebennack, the greasy-fingered pianist and one-of-a-kind from New Orleans who shot into an offbeat fame in 1968 with his album Gris-Gris, a swamp of freaky persona and psychedelic R&B. Big Shot is one of the 10 tracks of Locked Down, the man’s best, spookiest album in quite a while. Right place, right time – what a long, strange Dr. John the Night Tripper it’s been.
We can thank Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys’ singer-guitarist, for this absolutely welcome comeback. His contemporary/retro-production touches (and gristly guitar work) are all over the record. The vibe is sly and deep. It’s a disappearance into a curious specialty of voodoo music, with old-fashioned organs instead of piano and lavish use of background singers who come at the listener in shimmering clouds – sheets of silver-plated soul-sistas, like the 5th Dimension singers on methadone, needled up, up and away.
Then again, the album is grounded; the lyrics chilling, dooming. There’s a cold gloom to Ice Age, with its glacier organ and spindly southern-fried guitar lick. Dr. John exhales in low gruff that this “ain’t no age of the innocence, ladies and gents, don’t make no sense ... losing hope, using dope ...”
Revolution casts a stylish gloom as well, what with its pimp-strutting baritone sax and desolated imagery – “lepers in a desperate hour” and such. The chorus, set to a depressed sort of Motown upbeat, calls for a rebellion and a revolution: “This is the final solution.”
Rebennack has been walking on gilded splinters for 71 years now. A older bluesy artist working with an in-vogue producer is the type of venture we’ve seen of late. T Bone Burnett worked wonders with Gregg Allman on the latter’s Low Country Blues (on which Dr. John appeared) and Joe Henry has made a career of re-introducing moribund artists, including Bettye LaVette, Mose Allison, the late Solomon Burke and, most recently, Bonnie Raitt.
Auerbach assembled an adventurous cast of Nashville sidemen for this project, but it’s hard to tell who was in charge here. “Once upon a time we were the youngsters and Louis Armstrong heard all the music before him and passed it on to us,” Rebennack told the Wall Street Journal. “Now we’re the elders and it’s like a duty to keep it all alive and pass it down.”
And so what we have is gonzo gumbo: A modern-sounding give-and-take from a pair of artists who clicked as well in the studio as ever could have been imagined on paper. The title track uses a snare-drum sweep, wind-chimed weirdness and a double-bass beatnik beat as a lead-in to low-riding funk about a “future stretched out like a rubber cheque.” The guitar solo is in the style of Ry Cooder, Sister Morphine-inspired.
Eleggua defies dictionaries and the death of Curtis Mayfield, the super-fly soulster who would have admired the jammy stew.
The album’s resolution comes in the form of God’s Sure Good, a groovy gospel number that reminds us that a sandaled Jesus wore his hair quite long. The suggestion is that Rebennack, who’s finding of religion was the “right choice,” sees a higher power who once helped him and now is the answer for the sinister living of others.
Today, Auerbach is Rebennack’s right choice, and vice versa. Somebody called for a doctor, and two dudes answered the call.
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