His face almost obscured by a sprawling voodoo headdress, Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, looks burdened with his well-worn medicine man persona on the cover of his 29th studio album. But though the lyrics on Locked Down are plenty disillusioned with the world around him, the New Orleans fixture shows no signs of musical weariness. As it has on every album since Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding devastated his native city, Rebennack’s anger burns hot and sometimes out of control. (The chorus of “Ice Age” warns, “KKK, CIA, all playing in the same cage,” without hinting what terrain the acronyms might share.)
The fires are stoked by producer and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who surrounded Rebennack with a new generation of players schooled in the art of honoring the past without enshrining it, including Antibalas bassist Nick Movshon and Lee Fields saxophonist Leon Michels, whose low-register riffs are the album’s most pungent spice. Moving Rebennack away from the Nawlins funk that has been his stock in trade, Auerbach schooled him in the eerie, offbeat sounds of Mulatu Astatke, whose influence is particularly present in the African harmonies of “Ice Age” and the sinuous bottom-heavy groove of “You Lie.” Largely keeping his fingers off the piano, Rebbenack plays overcranked organ and electric keyboards, shifting between rolling figures and fractured, unpredictable solos.
Locked Down dispenses with the gris-gris trappings that have been drained of meaning over the years, but despite the lack of supernatural elements, the album has an eerie, even uncanny feel, like a voice from the other side. Rebennack’s voice is heavy with the weight of bad decisions and hard living, taking the voice of an ex-convict on the title track and marveling at his own survival on “God’s Sure Good.” He’s not exactly marking new territory, but with Auerbach’s help, he’s found scores of untraveled side streets to explore.