At approximately 2:30p.m. tomorrow afternoon, New Orleans native son, Dr. John and the Lowe 911 will take the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I say approximate, because time is not a fixed thing in New Orleans. Things happen when they are supposed to.
Some 71 years ago, Mac Rebbenack was born in New Orleans. He became a musician in some rough and tumble clubs during the 1950s. He played guitar before losing part of a finger in a bar fight. Between New Orleans and Los Angeles, he emerged a respected session musician. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s he took on the persona of Dr. John, the 19th century voodoo priest. And as Dr. John, he will forever be tied to the music and culture of his native New Orleans.
I became acquainted with his music when I was in high school in the early 1970s. I loved his hits such as “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night” (probably in my top five songs) without truly understanding the genre bending nature of Dr. John’s music. And, when you are tied to top 40 radio, you completely miss out on such albums as “Gris Gris” and “Desitively Bonnaroo.” In essence, I liked him for many years without really appreciating his essence, his true meaning.
Since I have hopelessly embraced New Orleans, its music and its culture, that has understandably changed. In the process, I have collected all of Dr. John’s music and have an enhanced appreciation for his music and its impact. I’ve even had the chance to bump into him him on the streets of New Orleans over the past few years. And while I generally have kept my distance, it has helped me place him as part of the Crescent City’s cultural fabric.
And while you might thing that a musician in his eighth decade might have passed his prime, I am here, along with his current work, to argue otherwise. When he takes the stage at Jazz Fest, Dr. John has five decades of music to draw from, but I believe that his most recent work is among his most vital and here is why.
I think “Locked Down” is the most important recording that Dr. John has made since the early 1970s. Yes, he has won awards and Grammies for music since then, but this is special. I don’t know if it is the collaboration between him and the Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, whom Dr. John met last year at the Bonnaroo Festival, but it works and it works well. On their collaboration “Locked Down,” he hits the electric piano more so than before. It is more personal, more self-centered. And many of the cuts have a Stax vibe that enters your gut never to the leave. Particular tracks to look for: “Locked Down,” “Revolutions,” and “My Children, My Angels.” But it is all great.
I wish I could be there tomorrow, but I am confident that Dr. John will solidify his position as one of the City’s central musical figures. And in a local career that dates back to a sideman with Professor Longhair in the 1950s up through his recent innovative efforts, who could argue?