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(429 Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/30/2010)
Artists with long careers in the music world can constantly re-invent themselves, or they can stick with what got them noticed in the first place. Playing old hits works for some performers, who are happy to be playing the nostalgia circuit. And there are those who come up with new music that pretty much sounds just like their old hits. That's not exactly staying very creatively active. But if the music that established these veterans has a lot of depth, one can have a long career making the music. Jazz musicians are an excellent example.
This week we have worthwhile new recording by a long-time figure on the music scene doing more or less what he has been doing for more than 40 years, and still making a creative statement. It's Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, who has just released a new CD called Tribal. It evokes some of his classic recordings as Dr. John the Night Tripper back in the late 1960s, and in the process he serves up some new songs that show he he's still in fine form. He also evokes the social commentary on the state of the world that reminds one of the 1960s as well, but put into a somewhat more contemporary context.
Mac Rebennack is the epitome of a New Orleans musician. He was born in the Crescent City in 1940 and was performing locally during the 1950s. He had his first regional hit in 1959. He started as a guitar player, but after suffering gunshot injury to his left hand, he switched to piano. New Orleans great Professor Longhair was a major influence, and Dr. John has become one of the iconic New Orleans style piano "professors" himself. He has had a long career as a studio musician, going back to early recordings by Sonny and Cher, before in 1968 releasing his own debut album called Gris Gris, as Dr. John the Night Tripper, combining New Orleans musical gumbo with psychedelia, and the kind of visual flamboyance associated with Mardi Gras. It became a classic, and he has been recording ever since, though he toned down the psychedelia and gravitated toward more of classic New Orleans funk and soul approach.
Though he wasn't living in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John became the sort of epitome of the New Orleans musical diaspora after the devastation of the city and its grand musical traditions. Dr. John released Sippiana Hericane in 2005, an EP that lamented the destruction of the city and the perceived official neglect of its victims. In 2008, Dr. John released The City That Care Forgot which won a Grammy for best contemporary blues recording.
Now Dr. John is out with Tribal and it settles into more of a classic New Orleans soul and R&B groove, in some cases reminiscent of his early work. He also continues his lyrical messages lamenting social injustice, but there are also a couple of bluesy songs about the kinds relationships that blues songs are written about.
There is a core backup band, he calls the Lower 911, featuring Herman "Roscoe" Ernest on drums, David Barard on bass and vocals, John Fohl on guitar and Kenneth Williams on percussion. There are a number of added guests including jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band, a string section, and various backing vocalists.
The CD opens with a track that is classic Dr. John, Feel Good Music, in which the good doctor gets into character. <<>>
Lissen at Our Prayer is the first song that considers the state of the world, and in keeping with the mood, it has a decidedly bluesy sound. <<>>
Addressing the subject of income inequality directly is song called Big Gap, which combines a little soul and Gospel. <<>>
In the realm of timeless soul is Change of Heart, one of the highlights of the album, with Dr. John's vocals at their best. <<>>
Also harkening back to Dr. John's early days is Jinky Jinx, with a funky sound and lyrical hints of voodoo that were parts of the Gris Gris album back in the 1960s. <<>>
With a rockier direction, and featuring Derek Trucks on slide guitar is a track called Manoovas. I don't think it comes off as well as the rest of the CD. <<>>
The title track Tribal is one of the most interesting on the CD. The piece begins with some Oglala Lakota chants <<>> which evolves into some New Orleans Mardi Gras faux Indians <<>> then heading off into a kind of New Orleans blues-soul sound. <<>>
A further departure is piece called Music Came which has a great 1970s-style jazz groove, with the vocal performed by bassist David Barard. <<>>
Also with a different kind rhythmic approach is Only in Amerika, which combines a Latin beat with more protest lyrics. <<>>
Mac Rebennack has been recording for more than 50 years now, more than 40 as Dr. John. His new CD Tribal has him in a classic sort of groove, sometimes hinting at music from his 1960s recordings, and sometimes going in more eclectic directions. But this is one of those CDs that definitely has a timeless sound. There's nothing trendy of faddish about this new project, just Dr. John doing what he does so distinctively, and still making it sound relevant in the 21st Century.
Our grade for audio quality is about a B-plus. The recording sometimes emulates the sonic shortcomings of analog equipment, with some distortion here and there on the vocals. But the overall sound is strong and punchy, and volume compression is not as bad as many CDs.
Musical innovation can be great, but sometimes it's good to hear some new music in a venerable style. It's even better when it's done as well as Dr. John's new release Tribal.
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