Of all the heartbreaking, fist-shaking laments Dr. John summons on his recent album City That Care Forgot, the most arresting song is My People Need a Second Line.
Set, as is the entire album, in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the song initially outlines the immovable sadness of a community mourning its dead without even the comforts of a celebratory "second line," a parade team of musicians and revelers that help funerals become affirmations of life rather than meditations on death.
Then the music steps up, the horns quicken the tempo and the music casts off all emotive burdens. In short, the second line has arrived.
But for Dr. John — also known as Mac Rebennack, pianist, songwriter and all-around New Orleans cultural icon — the real second line is still missing. A Crescent City native who fused the Louisiana piano lexicon of Professor Longhair with his own swampy Southern funk music to create the distinctive hits Right Place, Wrong Time and Such a Night, Rebennack is waiting for the full revival of New Orleans, the repair of southern Louisiana's threatened wetlands and a political leadership free of corruption to lead the area to a future that's as heartening as its storied past.
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"The song came out of a conversation I had with Aaron Neville," said Rebennack, who performs in Lexington for the first time in eight years on Thursday at The Kentucky Theatre. "He was telling me how they didn't have enough musicians left down in New Orleans to do a second line at a funeral. And that was just so sad to me.
"In New Orleans, for some guys' funerals, there were usually three or five second lines. But here, there weren't even enough to put together one good second-line band."
And so we have City That Care Forgot — a Grammy-winning album as funky and serenely soulful as any record Rebennack has cut in decades. But lyrically, it simply blisters as the record chronicles the storm-ravaged regions of New Orleans (particularly the city's decimated Lower Ninth Ward), the political powers that have hindered its recovery, and the deaths that mounted in Katrina's aftermath.
"I hope people don't look at it as being overly political," Rebennack said of the recording. "But we're trying to get truths out. Where can people go to get the truth? Well, I guess they can get it from us — a bunch of musicians. People may go, 'Look at those guys. What do they know?' Well, we know enough to tell the truth."
In Rebennack's corner for City That Care Forget was a host of fellow New Orleans greats, including Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, trombonist Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco. DiFranco had been maintaining homes in New Orleans and Buffalo, N.Y.
The album also includes a few notable guests from outside of Louisiana: Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson.
"Listen, Willie Nelson is open to everything, and Ani lives there part-time. Eric and I, we've had our ups and downs over the years. But he came into this knowing what we were trying to do. He really cares about it. So everyone threw down with all their hearts and souls for this thing."
For Rebennack, 68, telling the story of a post-Katrina New Orleans began just after the storm hit southern Louisiana in late August 2005. Within three months, he had released an EP disc, Sippiana Hericane, an immediate response and impression of Katrina's impact. The record's centerpiece is the four-part Wade: Hurricane Suite, a variation on the spiritual Wade in the Water.
"Pretty much our whole band was in a state of shock when we did that record," he said. "We were there in the studio trying to keep each other's spirits up. It was just a strange feeling. We were, I think, in Minneapolis when the storm hit. Then we had to go to Japan to play. It was very hard trying to explain to people what we were trying to do with this music."
So what gives Dr. John hope for his homeland? With a March report on CNN that called the Lower Ninth Ward "an abandoned wasteland" four years after Katrina, what faith can be gleamed for the future?
"Let's put it this way," Rebennack said. "I ain't giving up. We're people of a good spirit. These are people I trust with all of my life. There are also other people that believe in what we do. But certain things have to be done. We've got to rebuild the wetlands. We've got to get oil companies to stop digging where the salt water comes into the marshlands.
"Somebody has to make a decision. It will all come down to this: Will big money win out or will the people have a chance? It's always been that way, really. But the people I know? They're resilient."