At 72, Dr John is one of the grandees of New Orleans music. Since he returned to a healthier, drug-free lifestyle some years ago, he has released an album every few years, either in a stripped down "voodoo" funk style as on albums like Television (1992) or on New Orleans' musical heritage on albums like Goin' Back To New Orleans (1992).
He has been a stalwart of the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee for many years and in 2011 he shared the stage with young blues rockers The Black Keys. The set they played was a highlight of the festival. Indeed, the musicians enjoyed the experience so much, they decided to record in the studio, so Dan Auerbach of the The Black Keys coaxed Dr John into the studio to explore a much closer collaboration. The result, Locked Down (Nonesuch, USA, 2012), is Dr John's best album for years.
Just prior to obtaining a copy of the new album, I had waded through the Dr John Original Album Series 5-CD box set (many thanks to Don Gilliland of Dasa Book Cafe on Sukhumvit Road), which covers the period when he performed under the stage name of Dr John, The Night Tripper (unfortunately it doesn't cover the period in the 1960s when he was a guitar prodigy and session player in New Orleans, a time when he was plain Mac Rebennack).
Some of his work then was patchy to say the least, but when he was on song, he could really swing as on probably his most famous album of that period, In The Right Place, which includes arguably his most well-known song, Right Place Wrong Time.
The new album is something of a surprise as it moves the good doctor into new territory and shows that even in the twilight of his career, he's up for a new experience. Producer Auerbach has brought the tight, stripped-down blues sound of The Black Keys, featuring his excellent edgy guitar style, with perhaps more of a funk groove than the band would normally play, along with distinctive organ and pulsing bass to support Dr John's amazing vocals and his Big Easy-style piano playing.
The album is full of standout tracks, many of which deal with social issues and the hangover brought by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. On Ice Age, Dr John sings of "kids with Uzis, icing suckers" against an almost Afro-pop guitar sound that amplifies the simmering anger of the lyrics. And the great man has lost none of his ability to bend his voice to whatever sonic shape is required; he sounds like a swinging Tom Waits on Eleggua and then goes back to his more gravelly gumbo days on Kingdom Of Izzness. He is one of those singers who seems able to sing any set of lyrics and fit them with the music, such as Robert Wyatt and Van Morrison _ give any of these guys a menu or a phone directory and they'd make either sound wonderful. Dr John has the same uncanny ability.
This is an album that really rocks. Blues fans will like it, as will fans of Dr John's funk-laced gumbo style. Play loud and get ready to dance.
RHYTHM OF THE EARTH FESTIVAL
Todd Tongdee's 'Rhythm Of The Earth World Festival #8' returns to Bangkok this week.
The annual event features musicians from around the world, ably supported by local bands, schools and colleges, and food vendors, the latter under the theme of "Asean-Pacific" barbecue. In between the live acts, chefs will take to the stage to prepare some of the food on show.
The line-up for this year's festival includes Cameroon's Corry Denguemo, Korean percussion and dance troupe Pyeongtaek Nongak, India's Manipuri Cultural Troupe, A Moving Sound from Taiwan, Afro-Euro Khmer band Bamako Express and Todd's own band Himmapan. Local bands include Saengmanee, reggae outfit Deep 'O' Sea and local schools, some of which will play northeastern bongland music.
The festival starts tomorrow at 6pm, and runs until Sunday night at CentralWorld. Admission is free. Visit www.toddeastwest.com.
About the author
- Writer: John Clewley