“This record ain’t mad as it coulda been,” Dr. John told me recently, sitting in his Harlem office. Fan-pleasing funky grooves aside, City That Care Forgot seems angry enough—more a connected set of rants than a collection of songs. But it’s easy to underestimate the depth of outrage in New Orleans, the breadth of indignity and injustice endured in his beloved birthplace. Locals gave knowing nods and approving hollers when Dr. John tried out some of this material at this year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival. Taken in full, these 13 tracks might incite more widespread outcry: He channels post-Katrina fury as capably as rappers like Juvenile have, and lays out relevant issues—local, national, and global—in ways that, say, Nancy Pelosi simply hasn’t. If elected leaders lack Dr. John’s political will, they also don’t have his magnetic drawl or the bristling power of his Lower 911 band. Plus, he’s built a strong coalition of the concerned here, including Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Terence Blanchard, and a number of local-hero New Orleans players.
“If ya wonder how we doin’/Short version is we gettin’ there,” Dr. John sings at one point, then changes up the lyric: “If ya wonder how we doin’/Short version is we gettin’ mad.” “Promises, Promises” sounds like a revival-tent version of “Down by the Riverside,” its sing-song refrain nonetheless cynical: “The road to the White House is paved with lies.” “Black Gold” takes on the oil-industry greed fueling everything from environmental catastrophe in the Gulf to endless war in Iraq. “Say Whut?” demands accountability for the botched Katrina response, and bites hard: “Say it’s a job well done/Then you giggled like a bitch/Hopped back on the Air Force One.” In “Dream Warrior,” Dr. John imagines himself as an avenging samurai “sleeping with my sword” and proffers a conspiracy theory: “Lemme explain/About the second battle of New Orleans/Not about the loss, not even the devastation/About it was done with intention.” Beneath this beats a bamboula rhythm, bedrock of local resistance music for centuries.
It’s not all national headlines, though. “My People Need a Second Line” is a pointed response to an ongoing culture war over the brass-band-led funeral processions that define New Orleans musical tradition. It specifically references a moment when 20 police cars converged in Tremé (the oldest black neighborhood in the city), and two musicians were led away in cuffs. Dr. John explains the meaning of the jazz funeral via a doleful melody; then a snare-drum snaps and the tempo speeds up, signaling the second-line. “It’s something spiritual/Ought to be kept out of politics,” he chants as trumpeter James Andrews and trombonist Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews—older and younger brothers of a storied Tremé lineage—play soaring variations on a hymn. Such songs, directed at us all, are dedicated to families like these.