Playing himself in Season One of Treme, Dr. John rehearsed a band for a post-Katrina benefit in New York, wondering if its deep New Orleans jams might create some “confusementalism amongst the Lincoln Center set.” They probably did – but at 71, Dr. John has been balancing cultural ambassadorship with jive-talking nightclub hustle for decades. Born and raised in New Orleans’ Third Ward, he took his game wide, logging time in New York and Los Angeles before settling back home. He shuffled styles like cards, as anyone familiar with the freaky R&B of 1968’s Gris- Gris or 1971’s The Sun, Moon & Herbs knows. Purism, after all, has little to do with Nawlins’ melting-pot soul.
It’s the voodoo-gumbo jazz funk of those early records that the former Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. revisits on Locked Down, a collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produces and plays guitar. Full of muscled, vintage R&B grooves, fevered soloing, psychedelic arrangements and oracular mumbo jumbo, it’s the wildest record Rebennack has made in many years. And it announces Auerbach’s arrival alongside Danger Mouse as an A-list retro-modern studio scientist.
Born of a jam session at last year’s Bonnaroo, a festival named after Dr. John’s 1974 LP Desitively Bonnaroo, Locked Down is a record made by pros steeped in vintage rock and R&B – not just Auerbach and his crew, but Rebennack himself, the son of a record-shop owner who began his career in the 1950s as a teenage sideman and arranger.
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Rebennack played guitar until he got a finger blown off trying to protect a bandmate from a pistol-whipping at age 21; he then made the keyboard his primary instrument. On Locked Down, he smears electric-piano tones all over; the Farfisa solo on “Revolution” is a squealing wonder, the looping riff on “Getaway” a ferocious groove engine. Meanwhile, Auerbach shares guitar duties with kindred old-schooler and garage-rock vet Brian Olive; the pair supply spinal rhythm on the Stax/Volt-style single “Revolution,” counterpoint dazzle on “Big Shot” and solo fireworks (via Auerbach) on the pimp-rolling title track.
If the album’s components are retro, the pastiche has a 21st-century sensibility. Ghostly backing vocals waft through “Big Shot,” which sounds like a Tom Waits-meets-Gnarls Barkley jam. The album is flush with dub-reggae effects and the grooves of Nigerian Afrobeat and Ethiopian funk, styles that have become memes for a new generation (see Tune-Yards, TV on the Radio, etc.).
Lyrically, the Doctor brings the confusementalism, diagnosing the present through the past in a more weathered version of his trademark nasal growl: Check “Ice Age,” the album’s stickiest jam, which juggles generations of slang, conjuring conspiracy theories and drug-culture shell games that have changed little over the years. All told, Locked Down is that rare thing: a retro exercise that looks forward, by an old hustler and a young player who, in the process of making a great record, probably taught each other a thing or two.
Listen to Dr. John’s “Revolution”: