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One recent trend in pop music has seen a number of old souls producing albums by the young at heart. Gospel goddess Mavis Staples’s latest album, 2010’s You Are Not Alone, was produced by Wilco wunderkind Jeff Tweedy; rockabilly vet Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over, released in 2011, was overseen by icky thumper Jack White; and, since 2008, ?uestlove has lit fires under Al Green (Lay It Down), Booker T. Jones (The Road from Memphis), and Betty Wright (Betty Wright: The Movie). It’s a great deal on both sides; one party gets to work with their idol, and the other gets to make a splash—not to mention a potentially killer record.
On April 3, another notch is added to the future-master-produces-for-an-old-pro belt with Locked Down, the new album from New Orleans pianist and singer Dr. John. Produced by guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Locked Down rewinds to the Doctor’s potent late-’60s/early-’70s period, a time that precedes Auerbach’s birth by about a decade. Surrounding the release, and beginning March 29, Dr. John will take over the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House for three weekends, bringing in a different project for each three-night stretch. The middle weekend, running from April 5 to 7, will offer the official debut of the music from Locked Down.
The relationship between Dr. John, whose real name is Mac Rebennack, and Auerbach is young but deep. At the end of 2010, just a few months before the sessions for El Camino began, Auerbach reached out to Dr. John, and the two did some writing in New Orleans. In the summer of 2011, the pair reunited at the Bonnaroo festival—which takes its name from Dr. John’s album Desitively Bonnaroo—for a “superjam” that brought in My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, among others. In September, Dr. John paid a visit to Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville; those sessions generated the bulk of Locked Down.
“I think it was a good thing,” says Dr. John of Auerbach’s initial decision to get in touch. “Just ’cause I like somethin’ about what [the Black Keys] did on some of their stuff. I felt good about the thought of it all.”
To fill out the band for the record, Auerbach brought in musicians like himself: young, groove-oriented, and mindful of music history. Leon Michels, who has worked with Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, and the Menahan Street Band, contributes saxophone and keyboards. Nick Movshon, who plays with Afrobeat torchbearers Antibalas and recorded on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, plays bass. Max Weissenfeldt, of German funkateers the Poets of Rhythm, plays drums. And Brian Olive, of the Soledad Brothers, plays guitar alongside Auerbach. All of the musicians (minus the McCrary Sisters, who sing backgrounds) share writing credits, a concept that Dr. John had not explored before but was not opposed to.
“The band, actually, put a hell of a lot of work into this record,” says Dr. John. “And took things to different places than me or Dan woulda came up with. So they did participate in a different kind of way than I’m used to dealin’ with. Everybody contributated some other kind of maneuver.”
The album, in its use of reverb-y guitars, crunchy electric piano, spooky bari sax, and unfussy drumming, recalls some of Dr. John’s earliest work, when he was known as Dr. John the Night Tripper. Performing under that alter ego, he was a primal, psychedelic medicine man, covered in feathers and facepaint.
“I be constantly tryin’ to open up stuff,” he says. “Like the early, early stuff I did with [producer] Harold Battiste. I think [Locked Down] was, like, connected to those days in a weird way. Like, between Gris-Gris, Babylon, and The Sun, Moon & Herbs in a weird way. But it’s also fresh because of what Dan does.”
Though the bond between Auerbach and Dr. John is at the core of Locked Down, the album is much less a collaboration than initially reported. Truly, this is Dr. John’s album, with Auerbach tweaking and twisting when necessary.
“He gave me advice on how he wanted me to sing,” says Dr. John of their in-studio process. “Or how he wanted me to do something. Sometime it was to do with the backup singers. Sometime it was to do with, like, ways to make the songs tightened up a little bit. He threw out some lines here and there and said, well, let’s do this or that. Little things like that that showed me: this kid’s gonna be a killer producer!”
Different, perhaps, from some of the Doctor’s more open-ended lines, the lyrics on Locked Down are pointed and political. On the title track, he sings that “the system must be wrong,” and on the African-influenced “Ice Age,” he declares, “KKK / CIA / All playin’ in the same game.” The insistent “Getaway” avows, “Tried to break us / All we did was bend.”
“When it hits the fan, it’s like this: it’s like we perpetrated on ourselves,” says Dr. John of the state of America today. “It’s been comin’ down at us, and now we’re seein’ the results of what we did for a long time.”
The Doctor’s three-weekend residency at BAM will begin on a decidedly less dark note, though. From March 29 to the 31, the pianist will stage an evening-length tribute to jazz trumpeter and fellow New Orleanian Louis Armstrong, a longtime hero of his.
“I’ve been cuttin’ some of his songs over the years and I’m tryin’ to get it together to do a record as a tribute to him,” says Dr. John. “He was from my neighborhood, and I always used to hear my father say, ‘That’s where Louis Armstrong was born.’ I think that doin’ a tribute to him will be great, and I’m gonna bring out a lot of great trumpet players to do that. Guys from New Orleans, guys from elsewhere. Just so we can make this thing work.”
Among the trumpeters he’ll bring out are Kermit Ruffins, Roy Hargrove, James Andrews, and Arturo Sandoval, but, in the Doctor’s mind, no one compares to Satchmo. Not even the First Lady of Song, or the Prince or Darkness.
“He did the ‘Gut Bucket Blues’ and the ‘Dipper Mouth Blues’ and all of them classic things,” says Dr. John on Armstrong. “And then when he did other songs, before and later, he was like a genius. I mean, he invented scat singing. Ella Fitzgerald mighta been the most killer one to do that, but he started it. And he just opened the door for a lot of kinds of musics. It was like Miles Davis: anything he did on the trumpet, Louis Armstrong already done did it.”
The final weekend, dubbed “Funky But It’s Nu Awlins,” will, of course, shine a light on the irrepressible musical heritage of New Orleans. Alongside Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, Nicholas Payton, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dr. John will write a three-night love letter to the city that raised him. But, echoing the critical vibe of Locked Down, he sees the immortality of New Orleans music as tangled up in more than just blues, funk, and parades.
“Allen Toussaint brought up a good point,” recalls Dr. John. “He said that in New Orleans, because of so many tragedies that’s happened here—like the whole Ninth Ward being wiped out—it makes people more interested in our music. It seems like every time we have something cockeyed happens here, there’s some kind of resurgence of our music.”
Dr. John has always had a way with words, but “Insides Out,” the name of his BAM residency, has a special meaning for him. For him, it’s a flexible approach to music, one that originated in New Orleans but has since spread to other areas of the sound world, like jazz.
“Listen,” advises Dr. John. “We play music, and we could take it inside and we could take it out. And that is what New Orleans is about. You take it inside the music, or we could take it out. Off the hook, you know? We could do it any kind of way. I remember when Willie Tee was alive, he probably had the first band that actually was doing that kind of thing. Long before they had such a thing called . . . ah, they call it, now, some kinda jazz. But he was doing it long, long before any of this got popular. And Cannonball [Adderley] started hangin’ around Willie Tee’s band. And in the middle of it all, I think he figured, ‘Hey, man, this is something we could use!’ I know Joe Zawinul found ideas for Cannonball’s band when he was there. Almost all of Cannonball’s band used to go by Willie Tee’s gigs, except Nat [Adderley]. I never saw Nat over there once. But the rest of the guys all got somethin’ out of Willie Tee’s band.”
Likewise, there’s plenty to get out of Dr. John, not least of which is a singular sense of wisdom, irregular phrasing and all. For example, “Kingdom of Izzness,” off of Locked Down, is, in one respect, a meditation on living life in the moment.
“If we ain’t for the izzness, we for the wasness,” says Dr. John on the idea of “izzness.” “If we ain’t izzness, we are some dead suckers, and what difference does it make?”
Dr. John: Insides Out takes place tonight through Saturday, April 5-7, and April 12-14 at BAM.