Mac Rebennack has been making records since the ‘60s and has been a revered figure in New Orleans music for just as long. In reinventing himself as Dr. John, he took the city’s funk tradition deeper into the swamp of his imagination, mingling soul, blues and Afro-Cuban mysticism for some of the trippiest music ever to come out of the deep South.
One of his fans, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, guides John back to that shadowy “Night Tripper” era with a batch of fresh songs. The legendary pianist sounds reinvigorated on “Locked Down” (Nonesuch), in part because he’s not plugging into a formula, but animating it with some feisty new sidemen. Auerbach’s terse, reverb-encrusted guitar and the studio band he assembled for this project play vital roles, particularly drummer Max Weissenfeldt and bassist Nick Movshon. They keep things syncopated and slippery, and Auerbach tosses off an ornery solo on “Getaway.”
The Doctor plays less piano and more electric keyboards, which means he’s less inclined to draw on his tourist-friendly Professor Longhair mannerisms. Instead, he soaks “Revolution” in Farfisa-organ eeriness and conjures voodoo imagery from an Optigan (a vintage sampling keyboard) on “Big Shot.”
“My Children, My Angels” and “God’s Sure Good” allow the 71-year-old artist to close the album on a reflective note, but the cracks, imperfections and mystic weirdness of this music are where his personality truly lies. “Let’s all pray on it, right now,” he mutters before digging into his keyboard solo on “Revolution.” He brings the trickster god “Eleggua” out of the murk, and presides over the “Kingdom of Izzness.” It’s Dr. John’s world, in all its voodoo inscrutability, rediscovered.