Before the curtain rose for Dr. John last night, an antique jukebox on the side of the stage piped out a crackly boogie-woogie track from his new album, Locked Down. An MC appeared onstage and dialed down the jukebox's volume until it clicked to silence, then a frenetic snare roll cued in the band and the fatback beat. Dr. John appeared, hunched over a Wurlitzer piano in a bright purple suit, his face hidden behind dark sunglasses and his jazzman's fedora. He was decked out with his trademark accoutrements: beads and teeth strung around his neck, totem-pole cane at his side. A cool, confident New Orleans drawl emerged from his wrinkled mouth. At 71, Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. is an old guy. But his band's potent sound and focused energy pushed the New Orleans legend into new sonic territory.
Rebennack is in the middle of a three-week residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. This weekend's shows highlight his new album, Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys' singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. An early incarnation of the studio band jammed on a loose set of Dr. John and NOLA funk standards at last year's Bonnaroo festival. New music was later composed, then honed into a razor-sharp set of fresh, funky tracks crystallized by Auerbach's keen ear for riffs and beats. The band's members – among them Leon Michels (baritone sax, keys, vibes), Nick Movshon (bass), Max Weissenfeldt (drums), Dave Guy (trumpet), Aaron Johnson (trombone) and Yoshi Takemasa (percussion) – are all key figures in the cabal of New York-centric musicians who record for Truth and Soul and Daptone records. Matched with Auerbach's Midwestern garage-rock buddy Brian Olive and the gospel-singing McCrary Sisters, the end result sounds retro, but eludes easy categorization. Locked Down often sounds as much like a space-aged Captain Beefheart composition as it does Ethiopian jazz.
The Opera House was a plush, cosmopolitan setting for the Locked Down live set. A sober, attentive audience received less of a rock & roll show and more of a serious-faced exhibition of this record's unique sound. Onstage, Rebennack's demeanor was wry and reflective. He was light on banter and to the point, more subdued than his voodoo-fueled alter ego. But when Rebennack nailed his skewed, percussive Farfisa solo on the second song of the night, the single "Revolution," it was a wizened incarnation of his good-times hustler persona. He perched calmly in the middle of a semi-circle of keyboards (his altar), with a lyrics binder open in front of him (his spellbook) and one hand scampering across the Farfisa, as if with a mind of its own.
The band executed every Locked Down track with impressive precision, maintaining the recordings' tight song structures and allowing for only the most judicious solos and breaks – no jams. That being said, German drummer Max Weissenfeldt deftly maneuvered through complex, polyrhythmic beats. He was the quirkiest player and the most fun to watch, preferring to channel an uptight James Black than the chiller Zigaboo Modeliste. Together with Movshon's rock solid bass playing and Michels' bouncy baritone sax lines, Rebennack presided over a perky ensemble bursting with energy.
On the album highlight "Ice Age," Auerbach and Olive harmonized a syncopated guitar line while the rhythm section produced a galloping beat. Rebennack spat and growled over his spazzy Farfisa. The crowd cheered when he stood up towards the end of the song to pirouette and dance a stiff boogie across the stage before settling down to his Hammond. As the night's bandleader, Auerbach was restrained and reverent. Fans of the Keys' earlier records would have appreciated how he tastefully slipped his meditative Kimbrough-isms on the guitar into band's tight, funky sound, especially on the extended intro to "You Lie." The McCrary Sisters dazzled on "God's Sure Good," a jubilant, hyperactive gospel number.
Rebennack also peppered the set with a handful of choice Night Tripper classics. "Jump Sturdy," "Mama Roux" and "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," from his first album Gris Gris, were all treated kindly by the Locked Down band. Their take on "Glowin" connected the dots between the new album and Rebennack early solo efforts – that repetitive, gutsy baritone sax line wouldn't have sounded out of place on Locked Down.
Towards the end of the set, Rebennack relapsed into a boogie-woogie piano man. He delivered a carefree, solo rendition of "Such a Night," a song that has lingered around his live sets since the mid-Seventies. It was a fun, intimate performance, lit by devotional candles scattered across the stage.
The grand finale harkened back to the jukebox (an important symbol in Rebennack's mythology, as his father serviced them for a living). Leon Michels and the brass section recreated the scratchy, kaleidoscopic loop that kicks off "Big Shot." Turns out the trickster is alive and well in Rebennack, who boasted over a bluesy, barrel-house strut. If he's turned over a new leaf on Locked Down, his infamous, hustler swagger hasn't gone away. The straightforward stomper was the perfect grand finale, a gruff, bombastic New Orleans Bacchanal.
"My Children, My Angels"
"Kingdom of Izzness"
"Black John the Conqueror"
"I Walk on Guilded Splinters"
"God's Sure Good"
"Such a Night"