Dr. John Gets Locked Down With The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach

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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."

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Rockaeology
Rockaeology

Dr. John is best known for his hits “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night,” but it was his first single, “Iko Iko,” from the 1972 album “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” that introduced his New Orleans sound to the rest of the country. For most listeners, “Iko Iko” was a cover of the 1965 Dixie Cups hit. But the song’s ancestry goes back to 1952… and beyond. Rockaeology at http://bit.ly/gL5n0B tells how the song has roots in the chants of Mardi Gras krewes. The lyrics of James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s “Jock-A-Mo” unwittingly served as the inspiration for the Dixie Cups’ hit.

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