By Elford Alley
Ever since Johnny Cash’s legendary work with American Music, it’s become a cliché that an artist nearing the end of his career goes back to basics, releasing stripped down musings on their loss and mortality. Dr. John isn’t having any of it.
At seventy-one, Dr. John is touring Europe this summer, showcasing tracks off his latest record Locked Down. Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Locked Down gives us a glimpse into Mac Rebennack Jr., the man behind Dr. John’s voodoo-zydeco persona.
Dr. John has been a seminal part of Americana since he got his start in the early sixties. In 1968, he released Gris-Gris, his debut as “Dr. John," basing his characters on a mythical voodoo doctor and incorporating elaborate props and costumes into his shows.
Auerbach said in an interview with the New York Times last March: “Sometimes, when you are a character, I think it can be draining emotionally and personally…I wanted the music of Dr. John and the lyrical content of Mac Rebennack.”
Praise for the album has been nearly universal. The Los Angeles Times raved: “As Bob Dylan did with Time Out of Mind and Tom Waits did last year with Bad as Me, Dr. John does here: exiting a period of relative creative stagnation by creating something magical, the embodiment of everything he’s done but pushed in a clear new direction."
Dr. John has a clearly defined sound: bombastic horns, rolling piano melodies, and lyrics sung with a New Orleans’ drawl. But on Locked Down, Auerbach and Dr. John embrace a mixture of West African beats and jazz, with back up singers contributing to the gospel vibe of the record. Locked Down evokes New Orleans without bordering on parody, which is something several of his later records have come close to doing.
The lyrics are a musing on the darker side of Dr. John’s lengthy career, including everything from drugs, to a prison stint, to his regrets on neglecting his children: “I been trying to clean up my act with my children for a long time. And I pretty much got them all talking to me now.”
While most artists his age would be winding down, releasing retrospectives and focusing on the end, Dr. John is still moving forward: new sounds, new venues, and damn good music.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. His articles have appeared in cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)