Live: Dr. John Unlocks His New Album At BAM
Dr. John Brooklyn Academy of Music Thursday, April 5
Better than: Recounting the Ten Plagues at a seder.
"Insides Out," Dr. John's three-week residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, presents fans seeking a single ticket with a dilemma. Last week's Louis Armstrong tribute was the jazz-centric affair, replete with five trumpeters. Next week's installment, "Funky But It's Nu Awlins," promises funk and R&B, pairing Dr. John with heroes from his hometown including Ivan Neville, Irma Thomas, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. That seems the obvious bet, like picking Kentucky to take the NCAAs: sure to deliver, unlikely to surprise. And it means the wild card was "Locked Down," a showcase of the new tunes and new band on Dr. John's album of the same name, produced by guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
The new record is a stylized thing, with production sheen (or more accurately, a deliberate lack thereof) meant to evoke the 1970s soul-jazz of Ethiopian vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke. A public-address announcer informed the crowd before the BAM show that "Locked Down is one of the hottest selling CDs in the country." The album is, in fact, packed with strong tunes hung on punchy yet appealingly idiosyncratic hooks. The title is meant as a reference to getting thrown in jail, but it might also apply to sonic impression. In an effort to mimic the lo-fi Ethiopian sound, the band's dynamics and a good deal of Dr. John's potency come across as mutedlocked down, and not in the good way. It was cause for wonder: How would these tunes sound live, unfiltered and unfettered? Enough to make a fan looking for a fix ask: Right place? Or wrong time?
The answer came quickly and convincingly, via the crisp and urgent attack of the title tun. One by one, freed from the album's sonic pretense, these songs hit hard, sounded urgent. Dr. John was front and center, resplendent in a purple suit and fedora, a skull on his Farfisa, some votives on his Wurltizer. As on the album, he played electric keyboard and organ on nearly all the songs (he also played a Hammond B3). His playing on Farfisa sometimes spiky tone clusters, other times elongated modal riffswas knowing and cutting as his singing. His B3 playing on other tunes worked like a good roux in a gumbo, all slow simmer and essential flavor.
In demeanor, Dan Auerbach was the antithesis of Dr. John. Wearing a dark suit and wielding one or another guitar, he seemed earnest, on-the-job. That was a good thing, for its results. He'd worked this nine-piece band, plus three singing McCrary sisters, into a tight yet joyous-seeming unit. Auerbach's instinct to set Dr. John's brooding, sometimes angry lyrics and his swinging, blues-based grooves within a frame of North African tradition made musical sense. The rollicking 6/8 rhythms, with their hints of clave; the spare horn lines heavy on bottom end; the modal harmonies glistening in spots with chiming vibraphone: All of this was a natural fit for Dr. John, which shouldn't surprise. The geography comes pretty close. In his 1994 autobiography, "Under a Hoodoo Moon," Mac Rebennack (his real name) recalled how he invented the Dr. John character, a mystic, as "a medicine man who claimed to be a prince of Senegal before he was abducted and taken to Cuba."
The concert featured formative material in the life of that character, like "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," from "Gris-Gris," the 1968 album that introduced him to listeners. Dr. John moved to piano for another classic, "Black John the Conqueror"; on that one, and "Mama Roux," the McCrary Sisters offered wily, knowingly askew choruses. These tunes sounded of one piece with the new stuff.
Auerbach is an excellent player, maybe even terrific. He's good as, say, T-Bone Burnett, in mining influences right down to their sonic details and ambient essences. Yet there's a sometimes disarmingly calculated aspect to everything he plays, down the slightest overtone and bent note. Still, this show was a far cry from the jammy Bonnaroo Festival, where he first hooked up onstage with Dr. John. Here, Auerbach's precision had a point that mostly paid off. Few instruments conjure mood and mystery in pop music like organ; Dr. John is a master conjurer. So keeping him at the keyboards may have hidden some pianistic chops, but it mostly seemed to energize his muse and keep the band correct.
Dr. John's lyrics often delivered stark, troubled, sometimes even paranoid commentary. In "Revolution," he nearly howled between horn lines and over staccato chords: "Blind eyes of justice/ Deaf ears of power/ Dumb moves of money/ Left us in a desperate hour." In "Ice Age," which blended skittering guitar lines with a groove that could have been lifted from War's "Low Rider," he pretty much rapped about the KKK and CIA "playin' in the same cage."
Reviews and interviews surrounding the release of "Locked Down" talk about the new CD as Dr. John breaking character, dropping the mystical to speak about the actual, in his real voice. That's inaccurate. Dr. John has been speaking frankly through lyrics for quite some time with his Lower 911 band. His 2008 CD, "City that Care Forgot," was, for anyone that cared to listen, among the most direct and honest critiques of Katrina's aftermath in New Orleans. ("Say it's a job well done," he sang about George W. Bush, "then you giggled like a bitch/ Hopped back on the Air Force One.")
But every new album needs its storyline, and this new one has strands of truth, too. Dr. John has been discussing righting his past wrongs, of redemption. That impulse came across as heartfelt on "God's Sure Good" when he sang, "Saved my soul/ When it was all I had to sell," aided and abetted by Auerbach's gloriously twangy guitar invocation and the McCrary Sisters' response to his call. Maybe this was a bit of revelation.
In "My Children, My Angels" Dr. John sang of giving back to the offspring he feels he's neglected. Near the end of his BAM show, he gave a little back to the lady in the 14th row who'd been shouting out all night for "Tipitina," the Professor Longhair tune he can play the hell out of. After a standing ovation subsided, he was at the piano, playing a snatch of that one. Then, alone onstage, he offered up a long and wondrous version of "Such a Night." The depth of New Orleans tradition he called up with two hands and the delightfully slippery vocal phrasing were cause to sigh over what we hadn't exactly missed but also hadn't heard all night. Without the trappings of his ambitious new project, shimmying the beat, singing and spilling solos over it, nothing could have sounded more blessed.
Critical bias: How many of these people in the audience have ever actually heard or will ever hear Mulatu Astatke, or any of the Ethiopiques series? What does that matter, anyway?
Random notebook dump: On the Yoruba-inspired "Eleggua," as my buddy Pete pointed out, no less that five musicians onstage played tambourine.
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