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Dr. John records a hip record with The Black Keys’ Dan Auebach.(From Jazziz, summer 2012)
Ain’t no one hipper than Dr. John, the Night Tripper. From street-hustling junkie and psychedelic shaman to revered New Orleans R&B elder statesman and spokesman for the city that’s endured Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, the good Doctor has earned every accolade and bona fide tossed his way like handfuls of treasured Mardi Gras beads. His “mos’ scoscious” verbiage marks him as a “tricknologist” of the first order, just as his mastery of the piano styles of Professor Longhair and Huey Smith — and his rascally raspy vocals — shade him as a keeper of the Crescent City R&B tradition. Even his given name, Mac Rebennack, resounds like the crack of snare drums from Cosimo Matassa’s French Quarter studio during a classic recording session by Little Richard or Fats Domino.
Now, the eternal hipster — an icon for Baby Boomers who burned incense and other substances while listening to his trippy albums of the late ’60s and boogied to stone-cold groovers like “Right Place, Wrong Time” in the ’70s — is aiming to warp yet another generation’s impressionable minds. His most recent recording, Locked Down (Nonesuch), pairs him with 32-year-old guitarist and producer Dan Auerbach of the white-hot Black Keys. The bluesy-garage rock duo of Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have been fairly ubiquitous these days, their raunchy Akron grunge heard on TV commercials for beer, cars and jewelry stores, as well as supplying the theme song to the HBO series Hung.
Not that Dr. John, who turned 71 in November, has been keeping a low profile. But certainly, he welcomes an opportunity to tip his fedora to the kids and grandkids of his aging fanbase.
In 2011, the native of New Orleans’ Third Ward was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also had a recurring role playing himself in the HBO series Tremé — which he says he’s never seen because he doesn’t own a television. In March and April of this year, Dr. John participated in a three-weekend-long, guest-star-studded retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Art Museum (BAM), during which he presented a tribute to Louis Armstrong; a sneak peak at the music from Locked Down, performed along with Auerbach and the band from the album; and a salute to the Crescent City funk he helped pioneer on classic albums such as 1973’s In the Right Place and 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo. Also in April, Dr. John performed selections from Locked Down at SXSW (South by Southwest) in Austin, Texas, which ranks among the nation’s hottest showcases for new music.
And, if you want to gauge Mac’s further relevance, you might note that the annual Bonnaroo Festival appropriated its name from the above-mentioned LP. Like a groovy hepcat godfather, Dr. John took the stage at the Manchester, Tennessee, gathering of the jam tribes last summer, performing the event’s eponymous album alongside The Original Meters and Allen Toussaint, and participating in a “superjam” presided over by Auerbach.
The guitarist, who lives in Nashville, actually came looking for Dr. John in 2010, visiting him at his uptown New Orleans residence in the West Carrollton region once known as “Pigeon Town.” Mac didn’t know who Auerbach was until his granddaughter pulled his coat to The Black Keys. Less than half Mac’s age — Auerbach turns 33 in May — he made a vow to the man whose music had so greatly influenced him to produce “the best record you’ve made in a long time.” And damned if he didn’t.
Inspired by the spooky atmospherics of early Dr. John records such as Gris-Gris and Babylon, Auerbach invited Mac to his Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville last year to work on the songs that would become Locked Down. Dr. John plays a variety of keyboards, but the album is really more of an ensemble work than a showcase for his rippling 88s. Auerbach’s expert, textured guitar lines bite deep, but never overwhelm Mac’s vocals, which are a bit deeper but no less powerful than they were in his prime. The McCrary Sisters’ chill-raising backup vocals further recall vintage Dr. John sessions.
Auerbach hand-picked musicians that he knew could fulfill his and Mac’s vision. “Dan was a really great help to me in getting this thing did in the way it happened,” offers Dr. John, speaking by phone from New Orleans. “He was so open-minded to so many things. I mean, he likes a lot of different kinds of music. He was hip to an Ethiopian jazz band that I had actually never heard before, and they have their own whole style. There was a lot of stuff that he would be playing while we ate or took breaks that would be like, ‘Wow.’”
That breezy Ethiopian jazz sound wends throughout Locked Down, stirring echoes of classic Dr. John, as well as the ’60s-’70s instrumental sides of vibraphonist and keyboardist Mulatu Astatke. Unsurprisingly, Dr. John’s drummer on his early recordings, Richard “Didimus” Washington, hailed from Ethiopia, something Auerbach likely realized in selecting Poets of Rhythm drummer and percussionist Max Weissenfeldt for the session. (I would have confirmed this with Auerbach, but he was touring with The Black Keys and thus unavailable for comment.)
“Dan brought in this drummer [Weissenfeldt] that had lived in Ethiopia for a while, and he had a good feeling,” Dr. John relates. “Didimus was from Ethiopia, and he had studied congas with Chano Pozo in Cuba and then worked with an Afro-Caribbean quartet in New Orleans.”
Exotic rhythms have long spiced the multicultural gumbo of New Orleans music, from the days when African and Caribbean slaves drummed in Congo Square to the ’40s and ’50s, when Machito’s bands stopped off en route from Havana to New York City. A young Mac Rebennack soaked it all in, as well as some of the darker currents that flow just beneath the surface of a region renowned for its revelry.
Voodoo is no joke to Rebennack. He constructed the Dr. John persona and concept in 1967 based on a 19th-century medicine man, John Montaigne, who may have been affiliated with his great, great, great Aunt Pauline. One account states that Montaigne, a Senegalese king who came to New Orleans through Cuba, and Aunt Pauline were arrested in the 1840s for practicing voodoo and maybe running a brothel, as well. In Rebennack’s sometimes harrowing and always entertaining 1994 autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, he also describes his maternal grandmother as “a woman who possessed unusual powers” and “the kind of human who put the horrors creeping up your back.”
“She was kind of a root doctor," he elaborates. “She was a real special woman. I can remember, she would tie things on her toes and move her toes, and she would keep all of my Aunt Guerneri’s cats from bothering her while she knitted. There was a slew of ’em.”
Needless to say, Rebennack grew up with a healthy respect for the powers of gris-gris. The brand of mysticism that made its way to New Orleans via the African Diaspora — slaves imported from Africa via Cuba, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean — later expressed itself in various syncretic ways as it blended with the dominant Christian culture, most infamously displayed during Mardi Gras.
Yet, even as he adorned himself in the skins and feathers, charms and trappings of Mardi Gras Indians and medicine men, and snakily hissed tunes that provided glimpses of the shadow world of spells and spirits, Rebennack knew there were lines even Dr. John shouldn’t cross.
“At the time,” he says, “I was strongly instructed not do any sacred music. But to write stuff around it was cool.”
The cover photo of Locked Down depicts Dr. John peering out from beneath an elaborate headdress of feathers and braids. And the music within certainly evokes the eerie vibe of his early recordings. Yet only one track directly references the spirit world. The flute-flecked “Eleggua” offers a shoutout to the original master of “tricknology,” an orisha, or Yoruban deity, who serves as a protector of travelers, a personification of death and a chicaner who might trick you bad to teach you good.
Rebennack can dig. He’s feeling the wear and tear of his years, and past misbehavior is demanding reparation. In addition to cirrhosis of the liver, a souvenir from decades of past drug abuse, he also suffers from bone spurs on his spinal column and chronic pain in his neck and shoulders. His energy was at a low ebb when I spoke to him briefly in February. He had recently returned home from a weeklong tour of Osaka, Tokyo and Hong Kong, just in time for Mardi Gras.
“I was gonna go see the [Mardi Gras] Indians, and see some of my friends that I missed,” he related in a sleepy voice. “But I didn’t get to do much of anything, because I woke up too late. I was busted.”
He also begged off an all-star tribute to the late blues-guitar legend Hubert Sumlin, at which he was scheduled to perform that evening, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make that,” he said earlier in the day. (He didn’t.) "I just got out of acupuncture treatment, and I gotta pack to go to England tomorrow."
In his misbehavin’ days, as he relates in Under a Hoodoo Moon, Rebennack visited a spiritual healer after getting shanked in the back. She passed a tomahawk over the wound, applied a poultice, which she overlaid with a spiderweb and upon which she burned some leaves, and it fixed him right up. These days, though, he swears by acupuncture to ease his aches and pains.
But with all the attention on the new record, the BAM retrospective and high-profile gigs like the one at SXSW — and of course, April’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at which he’s considered royalty — Dr. John rolls on in style. Battered but vibrant, he’s like the town from which he hails. - Bob Weinberg