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Review: Dr. John, "Locked Down"

Dr. John's career renaissance, by way of the Black Keys

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Review: Dr. John,

The cover of Dr. John's "Locked Down" album

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When Dr. John left his native New Orleans and journeyed to Nashville to make his latest album, few thought he'd be on the verge of a major musical and commercial reawakening. But thanks to his ace in the hole, the indieish soul-blues duo the Black Keys, he's done just that, finally breaking free of a cultural stasis he helped cultivate and reestablishing himself as a swampy R&B and funk master of the first magnitude -- even if he ironically did so by finally moving away from New Orleans funk and ditching the most cliched aspects of his persona.

About this album

  • Release date: April 3, 2012
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Catalog number: 530395
  • Musicians: Dr. John: lead vocals, electric piano, organ
    Dan Auerbach: guitar, percussion, backing vocals
    Nick Movshon: bass, percussion, backing vocals
    Leon Michels: keyboards, percussion, woodwinds, backing vocals
    Brian Olive: guitar, percussion, woodwinds, backing vocals
    Max Weissenfeldt: drums, percussion, backing vocals
    The McCrary Sisters: backing vocals
  • Recorded at Easy Eye Sound, Nashville, TN
  • Produced by Dan Auerbach
  • Mixed by Dan Auerbach and Collin Dupuis
  • Engineered by Collin Dupuis
  • Mastered by Brian Lucey at Magic Garden Mastering
  • Art Direction: Michael Carney
  • Photographs: Joshua Black Wilkins, Alysse Gafkjen
  • Liner Notes: Gabe Soria

Pros

  • Dr. John hasn't sounded this interested in his music in years, and the effect is contagious.
  • The Black Keys know just how to showcase his idiosyncracies while keeping things focused.
  • If you were waiting for the Night Tripper of the mid-70's to someday return, you're in luck.

Cons

  • The funk and the boogie-woogie are kept to a minimum. But there's plenty of soul to go around.

My review

Dr. John's status as a major force in the development of New Orleans R&B, funk, rock and soul cannot be overstated. A former hustler, junkie, and pimp who actually lived the life most white bluesmen only pretend at, the man born Mac Rebennack created an entirely new psychedelic voodoo persona in the late '60s -- the "Night Tripper," steeped in the dark traditions of Crescent City culture and replete with a costume that combined glam-rock couture with the plumage of the city's rich Mardi Gras Indian tradition. After charting with "Right Place, Wrong Time," "Such a Night," and his version of "Iko Iko," however, the good Doctor spent much of the '80s and '90s as a cultural outlier, simultaneously reaffirming his love for the New Orleans piano tradition while indulging himself in some interpretations of the Great American Songbook. And when the city he loved switched to a tourist economy, Mac hit the swamp stuff hard, becoming such a cliche in the process that comedian Patton Oswalt once used him as an example of lame white bluesmen with no connection to rock: his impression of Dr. John had something to do with mush-mouthed hoodoo like "Sometimes you see an alligator driving a car, and he's wearing a hat made out of meat."

Well, the joke's on them. Again. The cover of Locked Down puts Mac back in his feathered headdress, but more importantly, the gestalt of the album jacket (CD case?) reminds one of some lost '70s artifact rescued from a vinyl bargain bin. It's entirely intentional, too, because the music inside finds the good Doctor at a creative peak he hasn't hit since the Carter administration. Credit for this goes to alt-rock favorites the Black Keys, a duo who began as a garage-blues act but have since evolved into a sort of loungey, bluesy soul that's made quite an impression on their "alternative" peers (not to mention the GRAMMY judges). Big hooks are their forte, always, and by simply jamming with Mac to create these ten original tracks, they've come up with a novel way of revitalizing the Night Tripper. The Drive-By Truckers may have turned Booker T. into a jam-band staple, but the Keys have reversed the process. Rebennack has never sounded so much like a soul man.

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