Every music lover has moments of revelation. I still recall vividly the first time I heard the Animals riveting (yes, it was riveting – I know it’s the critical cliché to end all critical clichés, and I don’t care) take on the American folk chestnut “House of the Rising Sun.” It was playing on the car radio. I made my mom leave the car running as we pulled into a parking space in front of my bro’s jewelry store in downtown Lawrence. Never in my sweet, short life had I heard anything like it. I was a pre-teen. My exposure to black music was limited to Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte; suffice to say Charley Patton wasn’t playing on WHB. The Animals’ singer, Eric Burdon, was from Newcastle, England, but that voice, and its amazing conviction and intensity stemmed from his adoration of the American blues tradition. I didn’t even know it yet, but I was hooked.
The mise en scene of “House of the Rising Sun” was New Orleans. When you’re a white bread kid in the sixth grade from Kansas your impressions of New Orleans came from Al Hirt and Pete Fountain (okay, Louis Armstrong might cross your radar occasionally, but almost as a novelty). That’s what you saw on television. No knock on those dudes, but they represented a commercialized, somewhat sanitized version of the music of New Orleans. That sound occasionally seeped into the pop mainstream of the Sixties. Fats Domino may have been past his chart prime, but songs like “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups and the odd hit from Lee Dorsey (especially “Working in a Coal Mine”) gave a hint what was cooking in the Big Easy. Aaron Neville had a hit with “Tell It Like It Is” but its rhythm n’ blues sound was not especially Nawlins-centric.
For me, another revelatory moment was the first time I heard Dr. John – on a short-lived Kansas City underground FM station called KCJC. The tune was “Mama Roux” if I recall correctly. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Heck, most of America hadn’t. The gumbo of styles, representative of New Orleans, that became available to anyone receptive to it in the Seventies, was still underground culturally in 1968. The Meters first album didn’t drop until 1969. Professor Longhair, after recording for several labels in the Fifties with marginal commercial results, was working as a janitor throughout most of the Sixties. The aforementioned chart hits by Dorsey, Neville and the Dixie Cups only hinted at what was going on in the diverse neighborhoods of the Crescent City.
Dr. John, the Night Tripper was a persona created by a Los Angeles based New Orleans ex-pat named Mac Rebennack. Rebennack had played on many recordings as a very young man in New Orleans. He moved on to Los Angeles where he was a go-to session man between 1963 and 1968.
As Dr. John, Rebennack combined the full simmering roux of New Orleans sounds (sanctified church music and Saturday night grind) and mixed them shrewdly and affectingly with the psychedelic wail of the emerging counterculture. Three similarly themed albums cementing the Dr. John cult followed the debut record (Dr. John, the Night Tripper - the album that included “Mama Roux”). Rebennack followed those first four releases with Gumbo, an excellent session that paid homage to hometown piano heroes like Professor Longhair and James Booker, produced by fellow New Orleans legend, Allen Toussaint.
Over the last thirty-some years the Dr. has kept active. As a solo artist he’s responsible for twenty-eight albums. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t had a hit in forty years (1973’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”) and who fought a junk habit until the late Eighties, as I understand it. There’s good music throughout that twenty-eight record catalog; but nothing quite as unique or captivating as those early records – until Locked Down.
Dr. John is pictured in full Night Tripper regalia on the front cover of Locked Down. It’s appropriate. But Locked Down isn’t simply a retread of those four early Dr. John records. It also draws on the funky sounds of his mid-Seventies releases In the Right Place (home of “Right Place, Wrong Time”) and Desitively Bonnaroo. Locked Down’s producer, Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, also introduced West African and Jamaican grooves (dub echoes resound on the track “Getaway”), grooves implicit (as cross-cultural influence) in the New Orleans sonic stew. The results are an updated take on the Gris-gris alchemy that blew my teenage mind back in the day.
Auerbach’s production is detailed, but dense. The sounds is both steeped in tradition and totally fresh. The model for this collaboration – young Turk produces veteran artist, wasn’t unprecedented. Jack White resurrected Loretta Lynn’s soul with Van Lear Rose. Joe Henry made Solomon Burke sound regal again with Don’t Give Up On Me. But those record were produced for artists primarily known for singing and songwriting, Locked Down features an artist with major chops and a singular instrumental vision. All Auerbach could do was surround him with the right musicians and shape his materials. He couldn’t have done a better job. Drummer Max Weissenfeldt knows all the tricks necessary to play this music, having absorbed the playing of Earl Palmer and Ziggy Modeliste (among others), but he plays with a flair and sensibility all his own. Bassist Nick Movshon (Black Keys, Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, Wu Tang Clan) provides foundation, extemporaneous moments, and combinations of the two - like the percolating funk that bubbles underneath “Getaway.” Brian Olive (solo recordings on Alive Records, where Black Keys got their start) works with Auerbach beautifully, making a great guitar team. They understand that groove is about space. On “Ice Age” they combine the sinew of Leo Nocentelli (Meters) with the Mali-lilt of Tinariwen
Auerbach gets his moments. His blistering solo on the outro of “Getaway” calls to mind the Sixties mind-melt of guitarists like John Cippolina and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat.) The pure, bluesy intro to “You Lie” is R.L. Burnside rendered elegiac. And his blowback solo on the title cut is note perfect, too.
Still, this is Dr. John’s record. At seventy-one his voice is still sly, suggestive and powerful. Among his many vocal models, for me Lee Dorsey still stands out; it’s something in the slur, the slide and the break in his voice. Of course he’s as much leader of this band as Auerbach. He’s also the rhythmic heart of these sessions as much as Weissenfeldt and Movshon, and his solo turns are full of musicality and surprise – check out the Sun Ra meets second line solo on “Ice Age.”
Locked Down is truly a post-Katrina piece of work from a man who’s none too pleased by the violence and injustice done his beloved hometown. The title track, “Revolution,” “Ice Age,” and “You Lie” all focus an evil eye on the transgressive, abusive powers that be – justice that casts too blind an eye, governments that fail to serve the people in the streets, corporations that rob them blind.
With a chorus that sounds like a drawled John Lennon, the call to arms “Revolution” is driven and punctuated by a doubled bari-sax line that’s straight out of Moondog (not Johnny, but the composer from St. Mary’s, Kansas, y’all). “Ice Age” is a funky workingman’s blues. Even an apparent love song like “Getaway” contains lyrics with references to being “strung out,” and images of a “padded dungeon,” and “jailhouse cell.”
Lighter shades of Big Easy funk come from “Big Shot,” a friendly bit of braggart’s bravado. Weissenfeldt’s parade drumming is counterpoint to the funereal “Two Steps from the Blues” guitar figure that frames the song. A pretty Fender Rhodes intro(duces) “My Children, My Angels,” a fatherly song that’s both confessional and devotional (“Your pa did a lotta work on hisself”).
While much of Locked Down is spent in protest or secular pursuits, it concludes with Dr. John’s thank you to the man upstairs, “God’s Sure Been Good” (“better than me to myself”). It’s an eloquent expression of faith and gratitude from a man who’s been down some hard roads. As Gods go, I’ll take the Dr. John model. In a world full of people who invoke God to support fear, hatred and sanctimonious judgment it’s good to hear a believer sing about the God of love, even if I don’t know what the hell to think my own self.
Dr. John may have traveled the world, but his heart has never been far from the Third Ward where he grew up. Locked Down is a resounding statement from a master. It evinces rage, provokes laughter and moves you to dance. This album speaks from, of and to the soul of that most unique among great American cities, New Orleans.
- One of the great things about having a blog is that if you feel like going off into reverie, leaving the constraints of review behind, you can. Sometimes it's good to tighten things up. Sometimes it's good to let it go. This review is dedicated to my late friend, editor and mentor Ranger Bob, who would have l-o-v-e-d this record.