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Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist and songwriter.
Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist and songwriter.

Music

Disc of the week: Dr. John's gonzo gumbo comeback Add to ...

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.

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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.

OTHER NEW RELEASES

Slipstream Bonnie Raitt (Redwing) 3 stars

Bonnie Raitt doesn’t need to write her own songs, not with a voice and delivery as listenable as hers – she’s in the elite league of James Taylor, Adele and Norah Jones in that regard. “There are no words that need to be said,” she sings on Dylan’s Standing in the Doorway, a heartrending steel-guitared ballad on her first album in seven years, “You left me standin’ in the doorway cryin’, blues wrapped around in my head.” Raitt is readable, her emotions as legible as any lyrics. The squishy, reggae-flavoured Right Down the Line will earn the estate of the late Gerry Rafferty royalties, and Raitt rolls and rocks a bit here and there, but it’s on the slow ones ( You Can’t Fail Me Now and God Only Knows) that she affects the most. It’s good that the slide-guitar woman who had a hit duet with John Lee Hooker is back, wonderfully in the mood and still in unmatchable stride. Brad Wheeler

Boys & Girls Alabama Shakes (ATO/Maple) 3 stars

Bless her heart and bless her soul, the singer Brittany Howard didn’t think she’d make it to 23 years old. She did, albeit with a swamp-soaked drawl that ages her strikingly – good lord, on the slow southern choogle of Hold On she sounds like she hasn’t a tooth in her head. She seemingly channels Joplin and Redding on You Ain’t Alone, a crashing, minor-key ode to empathy and companionship that is sure to bring down houses on the road, where the young Muscle Shoal revivalists first made their mark. Tempos are too routinely languid on this promising debut album – slow walks through kudzu and dark ends of streets – but the band is young. Wait till Howard hits 25. B.W.

Willis Earl Beal Acousmatic Sorcery (Hot Charity/XL) 3.5 stars

Willis Earl Beal grew up in Chicago, served in the army, and spent years either doing menial jobs or being homeless. It’s impossible to hear Beal’s first album of homemade lo-fi recordings without considering its context – his story, his race and class, the motivations of his label and the press in celebrating his unpolished art. But Acousmatic Sorcery makes a case for and in itself, from the evocative, poetic lyrics of Away My Silent Lover to the intimate confessions of Evening’s Kiss (“I don’t protest or resist, I’m not invested in this”) to Beal’s vocal versatility, balancing quieter songs with soulful, hollered laments like Take Me Away. These tapes are rough, but Beal’s talent is not, and that deserves to be celebrated. Dave Morris

Los Pajaros Perdidos: The South American Project L’Arpeggiata, directed by Christina Pluhar, theorbo (Virgin Classics) 4 stars

Crossover is rarely this much fun or this addictive, but then this isn’t strictly crossover. The music is South American—ranging from a “fandango” by the Spanish Baroque composer, Soler, to folk songs and traditional improvisational forms with vigorous rhythms—although the members of Arpeggiata, along with several of its guest singers, are more apt to be performing Monteverdi. But the multifarious harps, lutes, and guitars natural to South American music are still pretty close to those imported by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Renaissance, so these rainbow colours and pearly sounds aren’t far off the mark. The singing is stylish and irresistibly direct, from Philippe Jaroussky’s dulcet (sometimes matronly) countertenor to Chilean-Swedish Luciana Mancini’s sassy mezzo and Vincenzo Capezzuto’s androgynous, staccato patter. Elissa Poole

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