Locked Down represents the totality of the New Orleans music legend whose given name is Mac Rebennack but who had, in the late 60s, recast himself in the guise of the mysterious, swamp-bred gris-gris man he dubbed Dr. John, the Night Tripper. This new disc, produced by The Black Keys’ guitarist and longtime Dr. John admirer Dan Auerbach, distills half a century of this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s picaresque musical history, melding the shamanistic stage persona with the authority of the consummate studio musician, the cosmic conjurer with the street-savvy poet. These 10 new songs, written by Rebennack with Auerbach and his handpicked crew of backing musicians, combines incantatory chants and often politically charged raps with candid and soulful reflections, plus a healthy dose of hypnotic, simmering funk. As with much of what this multiple Grammy–award winning singer and composer has recorded over the last five decades, the Big Easy is the musical and spiritual jumping-off point, but these new tracks incorporate a world’s worth of influences, from gospel and blues to psychedelic rock and Afro-beat.
Rebennack’s Nonesuch debut pays tribute to his past, particularly to such groundbreaking early albums as 1968’s Gris-Gris and 1969’s Babylon, while maintaining a solidly contemporary feel. To Auerbach, “Mac’s first two records are really cool because there is such a singular vision, this whole kind of world he created on those records that was completely unlike anyone else’s at the time—beat poetry, weird time signatures and horn lines, Cuban percussion, New Orleans grooves. His back-up singers were the best backup singers on record ever. Those worlds he would create were really amazing.”
Though Locked Down was recorded at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound in his new home of Nashville, Tennessee, the precise place of origin for this unique collaboration lies halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville, in Manchester, TN, the site of the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival. In fact, that popular event takes its name from the title of Dr. John’s 1974 Allen Toussaint–produced album, Desitively Bonnaroo, an album that Rebennack and Toussaint reproduced on stage during the June 2011 edition of the fest. (“Bonnaroo” is New Orleans slang for having a good time, blending the French words for “good” and “street” into a distinctly colorful bit of jive.) That same year Auerbach curated the annual Bonnaroo Superjam and invited Dr. John to be his special guest. The concert became a de facto audition for Locked Down, as Auerbach assembled a potential dream team of players that he called back for nine days of recording sessions in the fall.
As Auerbach recalls, “That allowed me to choose the band I really wanted to get on the record and try it out sort of ahead of time—and it worked out great. I got five of my favorite musicians and paired them with Mac. They’re all young guys, amazing musicians, and it energized Mac to work with them. We played some of his back catalog, some stuff that he hadn’t played in 20 or 30 years. It was great. We had a lot of fun. When it came time to make the record, I invited those same guys out to Nashville to work with us.”
The guitarist had initially paid a visit to Rebennack’s home in 2010, announcing then his intention to produce “the best record you’ve made in a long time,” a bold promise Auerbach has clearly made good on. Rebennack had done his research before Auerbach arrived—more specifically, his kids had given Auerbach the thumbs up; they were Black Keys fans. Rebennack says, “He came to New Orleans and came over to my pad. We got together and I started telling him things about my old band, stuff like that, and we put some ideas on tape. But we actually didn’t go with anything that we’d started with then. By the time we got to the studio, we just rolled with it, cutting everything right on the spot.”
As Auerbach explains, “We came into the studio with nothing. Each day we’d start live on the floor, all the guys on their instruments, and we’d just start improvising. We’d try to find something that was working, grab it, and eventually turn it into a song—without vocals. There would be a verse section, pre-chorus, bridges, intros, outros, all that stuff, and we cut 13 of those. About a month later I had Mac come back by himself and work on vocals. He had lyric sheets; they weren’t necessarily structured as songs, just sort of ideas, word ideas—poetry. He came prepared with lyric ideas for each instrumental, I just helped him streamline the ideas a bit. I helped him grab stuff that would be appropriate for a particular instrumental and we’d turn that into a song. We came up with melodies and choruses. We spent eight days doing the vocals, he and I, and it all went very smoothly. He told me he’d never made a record that way before, he’d never started with the music first and done vocals later. He always began with the lyrics and the melody. So it was really different for
him. After doing a couple of tracks like this, he started to roll with it, enjoy it. But for the first couple of songs he was like, ‘Man, what are we doing?’ But it turned out to be really cool.”
“Dan has got such an off the hook way of doing records,” Rebennack enthuses. “In some respects, it was like the way I first started out making records but it’s different than what I’m used to doing now. He brought in all these guys special for this session. They were good at doing overdubs and that gave it a different kind of feel. Each guy doubled on instruments, which made it kind of interesting. I shifted a lot of gears in the writing of the album; I tried to make stuff to fit wherever the tracks were heading.”
The title track is ominous, as Rebennack, no stranger to trouble, casts suspicious glances around him. “You go through stuff in life,” he admits, “You get caught up in things that are on the wrong end of the law and that’s what happens.” “Ellegua,” on the other hand, is taken “from the spirit kingdom,” Dr. John exerting his gris-gris power. “My Children, My Angels” reveals Rebennack as both tender and rueful: “I was trying to dedicate this record to my children, trying to do things like that. I want to set things correct. Better late than…late.” Displaying a timeless kind of hip, “The King of Izness,” is “sort of a beatnik thing. A lot of the stuff I’m doing comes from way back and I mix it with stuff from now and I try to paint a picture with it.”
For Auerbach, the swaggering “Big Shot,” which features a haunting, repetitive riff culled from an Optigan, a vintage sampling keyboard, provides the most fully fleshed portrait of the artist: “He’s not naturally outgoing, but he’s sly. That chorus in ‘Big Shot’ really sort of is him, ‘I’m the big shot, laying in the cut for you to see.’ That’s him, man. He just lays back and he’s cool, and he does his thing. If you can understand what he’s doing, you can understand how special he is. But he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to shake you to get your attention. You either get it or you don’t.”
Beyond the attitude and the aura is the musicianship, which cemented Rebennack’s reputation as a first-call studio cat in New Orleans and in Los Angeles. As Auerbach recounts, “That’s how he made his money and that’s what he still is so great at. Watching him come up with parts was just so awesome. Mac is fearless. Like that Farfisa solo on ‘Revolution’—that’s a first take solo. He just goes for it, man He’s really getting into it. He told me he hadn’t played a Farfisa organ since 1969 when he was with Doug Sahm. And he killed it.” Though Rebennack is sought after for his piano playing, Auerbach kept him away from the instrument while encouraging him to experiment with other keyboards. “I wanted to keep him a bit more edgy, make it less of what you would expect from him, and keeping him off the piano sort of helped. A lot of the music I played for Mac, when I went and visited him before the sessions, really perked up his ears—most of which was really oddball stuff like the Ethiopian funk and old garage soul where the keyboardist is playing a Farfisa, those kind of good weird keyboard sounds.”
For all that was new about theses sessions, those off-kilter sounds, that entrancing weirdness, harkened back to Rebennack’s earliest Dr. John work with the equally legendary percussionist Richard “Didymus” Washington, who had studied jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms and knew more than a little about Ethiopian funk: “He was the guy that started my band; he talked me into being. He told me, ‘Hey, if Sonny and Cher and Bob Dylan can sing, you can do that too.’ I was working with Sonny and Cher at the time”—Gris Gris was reportedly cut with time left over from the duo’s sessions—“so I thought, maybe I will try this. Until then, I just had something against being a front man.”
Bridging then and now, Locked Down is about reclamation and liberation. As Auerbach says, “That’s the other thing I wanted to do with this record. To bring back an awareness of Mac. I don’t think he gets enough of the credit he deserves. He created this whole thing, then he stepped away from it to do the New Orleans traditional stuff or funk that wasn’t quite as adventurous as his early work. After meeting him and talking to him and seeing the kind of stuff he was into, I knew that was still there, that person, that fire. He really was spiritual and cosmic but very much into conspiracy theory, politics, hard knock life, and that weird old America. He had all of these great things in his mind and I just knew I could get him to speak that language again.”
“My thing is, I just try to tell truth,” Rebennack declares, “and I try to tell truths about things that some people don’t want to talk about. And it’s important to me. I hope this album is not anything expected. I want music to be fresh. To do something that’s coming from another place.”