Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Dr. John and the Lower 911, 'Tribal'

"I'm a seeker of the truth," confesses Mac Rebennack, aka the longstanding New Orleans musical shaman known as Dr. John, at the end of his splendid new album, Tribal. "And the truth is the answer to everything."

This little prayer of peace, titled A Place in the Sun, struts along with the cheery alto sax support of another great Crescent City music maker, Donald Harrison, to seal Tribal's glowing sense of hope. It's a far cry from the Dr. John who all but went looking for scalps in Washington in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There is still some political steam to blow off, as during Big Gap, although its attitude seems more socially or economically inclined. Then there's Lissen at Our Prayer, but it's more environmentally conscious (and written well ahead of this year's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

No, Tribal is a snapshot of a New Orleans on the mend. It borrows equally from the psychedelic gris-gris grit of early Dr. John albums, including 1969's Babylon (but with fewer leanings toward funk) and Rebennack's underappreciated late-'70s collaborations with the heralded songwriter Doc Pomus (in particular, 1978's great City Lights).

What results is a record with an unmistakable New Orleans accent that is sleek as opposed to slick and exact as opposed to glossy.

The album opening Feel Good Music is exactly that: a sly but merry parable with a luscious, rolling piano line, percolating organ colors and neatly propulsive percussion. Rebennack still sings with voodoo relish, but the mood is warm and inviting.

Change of Heart is initially cooler and churchier in feel. But the rich layers of organ and gospel-like piano, along with Rebennack's joyous singing, make for a divine blast of Crescent City R&B.

Fittingly, Tribal is dedicated to the great Louisiana R&B singer-songsmith (and longtime Rebennack pal) Bobby Charles, who died in January.

Curiously, some of Tribal's most immediate and emotive music is conjured on a track on which Rebennack doesn't sing. For Music Came, chant-like vocals led by bassist David Barard recall the earthy '70s soul funk of Les McCann — only cooler and more percussive.

"Way down deep from the depths of sorrow, music came," Barard sings in the tune's chorus as Rebennack's piano and, again, sax man Harrison jam away in the background as though it was 1971.

What a fitting tribute — musically and lyrically — to the resiliency of the New Orleans spirit. And what a beautifully typical sentiment to be shared by one of the city's great cultural heroes whose respect and regard for his homeland remain proudly undiminished.

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