On the Record on the road in the U S of A: New York City (take two)
The final OTR on the road diary. Hope you’ve enjoyed the trip The voodoo took root in Brooklyn for Easter. New Orleans’ sage and free spirit Dr John is currently holding down a residency over three weekends at the Brooklyn …
The final OTR on the road diary. Hope you’ve enjoyed the trip
The voodoo took root in Brooklyn for Easter. New Orleans’ sage and free spirit Dr John is currently holding down a residency over three weekends at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). It began with Mac Rebennack doffing his cap to Louis Armstrong and will end with him and a bunch of other Nu Awlins’ champs onstage this weekend.
But it’s the three shows in the middle of the run, with Rebennack playing his new album “Locked Down”, which caught our attention. Produced by Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, “Locked Down” is an album influenced by the connections the producer heard between Dr John’s gris-gris and the Ethio-jazz plotted by Mulatu Astatke. It’s an intriguing prospect: can you really build a bridge between the soul-jazz high-life of Ethiopia in its Seventies’ pomp and the rolling gumbo of New Orleans’ most colourful cat?
Within a few bars of the shimmering, snaking title track on Easter Saturday, though, it’s obvious that Auerbach was onto something with this transcontinental boogie. There’s a sprightly bounce and eerie glow to the sound, which behooves all to shift in their seats to get a little closer to the action. That punchy panache and fascinating vibe never lets up for the entire set as the musicians go at the songs with hammer and tongs.
If Auerbach is the ringmaster who put all of this in place (and he’s stage left tonight to play guitar and subtly direct the traffic), Rebennack is the star turn. It’s been a long, strange, eventful trip for the onetime session player for Sonny & Cher who became Dr John the Night Tripper in the late 1960s after a brainstorming session with pals in Los Angeles.
Since the release of the outstanding “Gris-Gris” debut album in 1968, Dr John has become the embodiment of a very individual freak scene which takes in New Orleans’ enigmas, psychedelic rock rhythms and a theatrical stage stance.
Yet even those shenanigans can get a little stale after 40 odd years of playing “Mama Roux” every time you hit the stage (though his post-Katrina album “City that Care Forgot” bucked that trend), which is where Auerbach and “Locked Down” come into play. Like many vintage acts before him, Rebennack has benefited hugely already from the collaboration. “Locked Down” hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but it has pushed it in a different direction which gives Renennack new momentum and, perhaps, a new audience too.
The bout of Saturday night fever evoked by the BAM performance is due to a few things. In part, it’s down to the band, the same bunch of powerful musicians who played on the album and who previously added their stamp to records by acts from Amy Winehouse to Lee Fields. In part too, it’s down to the material, a bunch of songs which sees Rebennack taking the mask off and reflecting on the bigger issues around faith and family.
The real reason for the boogaloo, though, comes down to the man in the middle of the stage behind the Farfisa and Hammond B3. Sure, there’s the odd nod to that patented Dr John stage shtick – and yes, there’s also a few glances at the more popular corners of the back-catalogue with solo piano nods to “Tipitina” and “Such A Night” – but this is about the power and precision of a very strong album and Rebennack is extremely hip to that fact.
He also knows that he is at the helm of a very hot band, who are keenly tuned to every spike and swing in the music, from “Ice Age” to “My Children, My Angels”. When they turn their attention to the classics like “I Walked On Guilded Splinters” and “Black John the Conqueror”, a whole new set of expectations take flight.
If Auerbach has been the facilitator who has shown Rebennack a new way to skin a cat, you know that the man himself just won’t leave it at that. Expect the good doctor to relish this new lease of life for some time to come.