Had it not been for HBO police procedural drama “The Wire,” I’d like never have really gotten to know Dr. John beyond hits like “Right Place Wrong Time.” It was that show’s creator, writer/producer/showrunner/genius David Simon who – through his latest show, HBO music drama “Treme” – pushed me to deeper investigate the music culture of New Orleans. “Treme,” in a very honest, authentic way, celebrates and documents pre- and post-Katrina NOLA, using musicians, both fictional and real, to fill out its cast. Malcolm “Dr. John” Rebennack, Jr., one of the city’s most successful and celebrated songwriters, has turned up on the show four times now as himself, almost always framed by Simon as a living legend. A character that almost reminds me of Spike Lee’s Da Mayer from Do the Right Thing. Now, with a new wave of energy and eyes, Dr. John he has a new studio album out, titled Locked Down, that he recorded with Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach. Youthful energy continued.
The result is a sweaty, swampy, funky and soulful set of 10 new studio songs that at once feel classic and modern. Auerbach, who has suddenly become “The New Jack White” (and so Locked is his Van Lear Rose, I suppose), seemingly learned much about production while working with Danger Mouse on 2008′s Attack & Release, and he hasn’t been the same since. That record, as well as 2010′s Brothers, last year’s great El Camino and now Locked Down, features a production style that I don’t quite have the language to describe. It’s hot and modern sounding, not at all unlike the sound Mark Ronson gave Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. It’s old and new, familiar and fresh. Perfect for introducing Dr. John to a new generation of listeners. And while those Black Keys platters are surely great collections of IPB (that’s Indie Power Blues, baby), I can’t help but think that the labors of Auerbach’s time spent producing those discs with the Mouse is most full realized – and successful – here, on this collaborative record.
John’s voice is as gritty, funky and soulful as ever it was on Locked Down, and the songs are lean, clean and hugely accessible. The record, recorded in Nashville with a young crew of players (including, of course, Auerbach), is tight and groove-based while the lyrics are as spiritual, poetic, mystical and primal as you Night Tripper fans could ever hope for. The sound, and songs in general, just feel fat and funky, driven by John’s voice and keys and words. His personality and one-of-a-kind moodiness. A soul record that’s at times creepy and always weird. Happy but serious. Hopeful and real. Just like NOLA. Just like all the great Dr. John records from the late 60s and early 70s. Records like Dr. John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place and, of course, Gris-Gris that I hope this new generation of listeners will investigate. And, even if the kids don’t come around, all lifer fans of the Doc should be more than happy with this very solid, very memorable set of new tracks from The Night Tripper. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and, amazingly, John and Auerbach never repeat themselves while digging through past sounds and ideas. Chalk Locked Down up as one of the great old-meets-new collaborations of all-time. A new classic, even, I’d say.