Retracing old glories can be inevitable for any rock or pop stylist whose career lingers through the decades. Certainly that is true of Mac Rebennack, the New Orleans-bred keyboardist better known as the neo-psychedelic voodoo rock shaman (and now Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) Dr. John.
For years, various labels and producers have sought to replicate the fascinating gris-gris music that Rebennack initially offered to mainstream audiences from 1968 to 1974. Look at his career and you will find far more hits than misses when it comes to rekindling the darker Mardi Gras grooves. Among worthy successors to the early Dr. John records have been 1998's Anutha Zone, 2001 Creole Moon and 2010's underrated Tribal.
True to form, as soon as the good doctor's new album Locked Down kicks in, that swampy, humid Crescent City mischief — and all the otherworldly accents accompanying it — surface like a séance.
In one corner of the album-opening title tune, you hear a rugged acoustic bass riff grow out of the earthy ambience of jungle howls. That suggests a new and perhaps jazz-accented adventure. Then come the chants and rattling percussion rolls that recall the forgotten 1970 Dr. John war cry Angola Anthem.
Something new triggered by something very old? Not entirely. The tune is simply a rich, organic extension of what Dr. John has dispensed in his creole-saturated music for ages. He has a new ally this time: guitarist Dan Auerbach of the white-hot Black Keys, who is the producer for Locked Down. Obviously versed in (and maybe even raised on) the more ominous textures of Rebennack's music, Auerbach helps design tunes that ignite a voodoo spark without forcing the flame.
On Big Shot, a New Orleans jazz groove rises and circulates like a ghost very much at home with the resulting blues groove and the ageless sass of Rebennack's singing. Later, Getaway turns deliciously retro with the stutter of electric piano and the lean, percussive immediacy of the Black Keys' recent records.
But none of this would matter if Rebennack, 71, still didn't have the blues/funk goods and honest New Orleans juju to pull off something as earnestly homegrown as Locked Down. Auerbach certainly gives the project modern cred. But he is more roots-music enthusiast here than rock star. This is Rebennack's show all the way, whether he is still (rightly) decrying the sluggish post-Katrina reconstruction of his homeland in Revolution or hitting a voodoo bull's-eye with the Traffic-like incantation of Eleggua.
The music might have a retro feel upon first listen. But with Auerbach's help, Locked Down emerges as the sound of Dr. John grooving very much in the moment.