New Orleans is easily one of the most important cultural hubs in the United States, and has undoubtedly contributed to music culture with its own brand of bayou-based R&B. One of the more prominent musicians in this genre is Mac Rebennack, a.k.a “Dr. John.”
Like his masterful left hand, his stylistic stride spans a wide breadth of genres such as blues, R&B and jazz. Throw in his distinctive, growling vocal delivery, and you’ve got one of the most renowned and recognizable ivory-ticklers to ever emerge from the Big Easy.
Dr. John’s latest release “Locked Down” is a very rhythmic album – the word “trippy” comes to mind when listening – and its sound, while rooted in traditional genres, still remains unique. And if you were ever taking a road trip down south, this would be the perfect album to play in your car. The sound of the album is reminiscent of the hot and humid climate of Louisiana, and one could imagine that “Locked Down” was recorded right on the muddy bank of the Mississippi River.
The album starts off in a rhythmically dynamic fashion with the title track, which possesses a strong bass line and drumming to match. With the addition of back-up vocals, it gives a preview into the album’s feel for arrangement and gritty nature.
To showcase a type of laid-back and mellow feel, the track “Revolution” incorporates a baritone saxophone that serves as the foundation of the song. The lyrics speak to a man opposed to the corruption of the powers that be, violence and the darker side of humanity. The eerie sounds of the song mix well with the jazz instrumentation.
Dr. John is noted, above all, for his talents on the keys, and there are tracks that showcase his abilities in that regard. “My Children, My Angels” opens with a light keyboard track that is soon is accompanied by a powerful snare drum. The song’s calm demeanor fits well with the lyric’s narrative of a father telling his children about his regrets. “Getaway” has another keyboard intro and is one of the high points of the album. The drum fills are perfectly executed and the guitar solo is a fitting end to a song that has a blues-like feel to it.
Another notable feature about “Locked Down” is the prevalence of back-up vocalists, which often adds the feeling of a gospel choir to Dr. John’s rollicking R&B. “Kingdom of Izzness” features a great call and response singing arrangement between Dr. John and the backup vocalists, and one can imagine that a song like this could be found in a particularly enthusiastic church on a Sunday morning. The theme of religious convictions is also featured on the track “God’s Sure Good”.
In a pleasant surprise, guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys not only serves production duties on the album, but also kicks in some of his six-string expertise on a few tracks as well. As a result, “Locked Down” absorbs some of Auerbach’s edgier blues-rock influences. His well-crafted guitar solos on “Getaway” and “You Lie” are the highlights of the songs, and was a great way to incorporate a wide range of musicianship and some young blood into Dr. John’s classic R&B repertoire.
After all, it’s the wide use of instrumentation on “Locked Down” that keeps it both classic-sounding and expansive. The saxophone, keyboards, guitars and a number of percussion instruments find their way onto the album. The track Voodoo-laced “Eleggua” is the most unique sounding song on the album, reminiscent of a ritual chant. The backup vocalists do an incredible of job of giving the song an aura of mysticism that, combined with the instrumentation and barely comprehensible lyrics, gives off hypnotic feelings of the occult.
This album is a bit on the edgy side. It’s certainly far from the mainstream in this day and age, but that doesn’t diminish the quality or the production or the energy that Dr. John put into writing “Locked Down.” Many long-time Doc fans might be surprised at the direction Auerbach’s production brought the album in, and who knows – maybe this will be the gateway album for a few Black Keys fans to immerse themselves into the back catalogue of an artist that influenced Auerbach and a slew of other rock, blues and R&B acts.
The classic facets of Louisiana jazz and R&B, as well as Cajun Creole flavors find their way into “Locked Down”. If some are looking to get into a style that deserves a re-emergence into the mainstream, pick this one up.
Adam Colorado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.