- Melody / Hooks
A pimped out trip with Street Walkin’ Cheetahs
Dr John looks like the rightful inheritor of Baron Samedi’s voodoo trinkets, festooned with hoodoo beads, teeth and bones, feathers and turquiose: he probably carries the snake oil distillation of the secrets to the universe in the top of his cane.
For this his latest recording he has enlisted the talent of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (guitar and production), the McCrary Sisters and an incredible band of musicians including Brian Olive. John used to be a guitarist himself until he lost a finger, aged 21, protecting a fellow musician from a pistol whipping; he turned to the piano. Half a century of living later and we have Locked Down.
“Where am I at? How the Hell’d I get here?”
Locked down begins with a hocus-pocus of jungle sounds before kicking off with pressed snare rolls and a bassline that literally stands up.
The immediate flavour mixes deep Orleans swamp funk with a tribal 1960’s flashback. Dr. John’s voice is umnistakable, and beneath the stretched jive talk his lyrics lean towards social commentary – it doesn’t matter – his voice is like gravelled honey. The key’s are on, and we are carried away on a vintage R’n’B trip by the McCrary chorus and the afrobeat exhalations of John’s percussion. As the vocals swell and build behind his idiosyncratic voice the brass bends and moans. It’s all style and all substance.
The Future’s Stretched out like a Rubber Check
The querulous (blackface) slide sounds good and the keyboards are delivered with the ominous fervour of a Draculean high-priest. The first track finishes with spacey vibes and the spooky sci-fi jangle of John’s beads and bones in a giant reverberating space.
“Revolution” is a more brass focussed, pimped out trip with street walking cheetahs; it’s a hard sound to classify – somewhere between Waits, Longhair and snatches of Stax muscle. After an ‘Autumns Child’ waltz breakdown in the middle, John entreats us to “…all just pray on it now” – before kicking out an immense, “arabesque” farfisa solo while the band pick it up.
“Big Shot” begins with a sweet ’78 rpm gramophone loop and hook, over a smokey and a sly off beat shuffle, etheral B.V’s and a pitfull of snakey brass. The big band, 2-tone, Al Capone feel breaks down into a dreamlike, looping reverie of brass and woodwind. The flavour of this record is definitely more Stax than Motown, with a dark Van Vliet undertone, a late 60’s psychedelic lustre and loaded lyrics.
The Ice Age will not be televised
And the groove goes on. What marks Dr. John’s elevating blend of styles as an achievement is that it remains highly listenable, entertaining, and whilst genre-blending, this record is never hard on the ear. A soaking keyboard motif over hot Afrobeat percussion with big flavors of jazz fusion – “Ice Age” is a heady concoction of instrumentation sweetly balanced with John’s growl – the idea of a “chorus” into a huge 1970’s space.
“Getaway” oscillates between a sense of calm and urgency – with timeless 1950’s Duane E. glitter guitar styling over a swinging 60’s, big band jazz feel with a touch of Space Echo – ultra-hip. A reckless, molasses guitar solo with a fat-guage saturated tone that sounds like six tons of shit tied up in a two ton bag, puts this number to bed.
“Izzness” delivers a distopian polemic; he howls “Can I get a witness?” More surprising progressions – tight grooves – John’s band use their riffs as accents, adding feel, keeping it stripped back, yet chock full of sharp edged grit.
Next, the guitar drops some blues before settling like a pulsing thumb hit with a hammer into the mixed signatures of “You Lie”.
Haunted by the restless ghost of Roland Kirk and accented by chiming ‘thumb’ piano and banjo sounds “You Lie” is propelled by an off beat drum and Kongo bassline. A strange brief “recorder” solo and a single “chorus”. In the hands of the less capable this much sonic muscle in one riff could fall into cacophony; it doesn’t.
Neither does this album. A Blaxpolitation, Kirkesque flute groove flunk puts some charcoaled meat upon the bones of John’s ‘zulu/creole’ incantation “Eleggua”. It’s impossible to decipher and it is perfect. If this doesn’t make you smile then…well, you probably understand it. Get your 21st Century Bongo Rock.
The penultimate cut finds the Doctor in a very cool, cool mood – mellow and reflective: “My Children, My Angels” builds gently into an anthemic singalong punctuated with an instinctive guitar line hook – a street wise bugle call – which at any moment might herald the worlds greatest jam, until it regretfully ends after the Dr. has said his piece. It’s a massive cut filled with sentimental majesty somewhere between The Doors and The Verve.
Where It’s At
Locked Down finishes with the feel good, brushed up snare shuffle of “God’s Sure Good”. Undeniably catchy, with an upbeat gospel flavour, Dr. John and the band build an irrepressible fervor, enthusiasm and big time New Orleans street party.
“God’s been good to me, better than me to myself. Taught me a lesson, brought me a blessing. He showed me how to live and let live. I’m so thankful ..the breath of life he give.”
This record blends genres without descending into avant garde and whilst all the sonics are vintage the arrangement and production gives them a thoroughly modern feel. Auerback has definitely done his homework – there is a great mixture of styles and sound here – blues, cajun, gospel, dub, vaudeville, tin pan, psych – it all breathes and flows together to build a theatric and vivd insight into Dr John’s unique Louisiana life and musical ‘experience’.
The Verdict – Good, bad or just ugly?
No doubt Dr. John’s huge character looms large and therefore this record mightn’t be for everyone but if you like great rhythms, tight playing, quality instrumentation, bold sonics and production coupled with the rich drug-like euphoria and atmosphere of what John’s wild Louisiana sound has to offer then this is an irresistable album.
Dr John Tour and Concert Dates
If you would like to see Dr John the Night Tripper in person the latest concert/ tour dates are available here.