From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Dr. John “Locked Down” (Nonesuch Records)
Dr. John is one cool and unusual cat: Rarely do you see a skilled session musician transform himself into veritable musical witch doctor; plus, he has the rare distinction, along with the late Keith Moon, as a performer colorful enough to inspire a Muppet who also boasts the talent, creativity and influence to land a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The New Orleans singer/songwriter/musician again concocts some strange and wonderful musical alchemy with “Locked Down,” his debut on Nonesuch Records. As the cover art of Dr. John in one of his flamboyant Mardi Gras headdresses indicates, his new album flashes back to the late 1960s and his “Night Tripper” era, with an unapologetically funky, often tribal sound. But “Locked Down” also boasts a decidedly fresh, contemporary vibe under the guidance of producer Dan Auerbach of popular blues-rock revivalists The Black Keys.
Auerbach and the musical practitioner also known as Mac Rebennack are the sonic equivalent of another New Orleans-inspired combo: shrimp and grits. You probably never would have thought of it yourself, but it proves awfully tasty once you sink your teeth into it.
Due out Tuesday, the album was recorded in Auerbach’s studio, Easy Eye Sound in Nashville, Tenn., with the Black Keys singer/guitarist hand-picking the young players. Dr. John’s spicy stew of New Orleans R&B, zydeco, boogie woogie funk and psychedelic rock is clearly the main dish, but Auerbach serves up a distinctive and appealing foundation for it.
The album opens with the title track, with the sounds of exotic birds, creepily chanting backup singers and Dr. John’s atmospheric organ setting the mood. He brings a “Gris-Gris” sort of groove to the politically pointed “Revolution,” and his signature growl is as gravelly as ever on the cynical anthem “Ice Age.” The Grammy winner even croons in Creole on the eerie track “Eleggua.”
Just as the Muppets never really went away but recently returned to their rightful place as pop culture treasures, it’s a primal thrill to hear the inspiration for colorful puppet bandleader Dr. Teeth return to the musical forefront.