Album Review: Dr. John – ‘Locked Down’

Photo credit: Lisa Houlgrave

This review is a little late coming. Locked Down, the latest album from Dr. John, has likely sat dusty on the shelves of many a record store without receiving the traction it deserves. In an ideal world — at least, in my ideal world — convertibles would rip through the summertime blasting “Revolution” instead of the illiterate sounds of modern pop, though I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Some of my favorite releases in recent years have involved older legends trusting their legacy and talent with a youthful filter. Al Green’s Lay It Down album produced by The Roots’ ?uestlove and Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy behind the boards are some examples, but this Dr. John album with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys is perhaps the best yet.

Keyboardists who played soulful music in the ’60s and ’70s were the most damaged by the ’80s’ synth-laden production and mechanized drum sounds. This album sounds vintage in the best way and at the same time holds a modern relevance. The tones are incredible. The scope is eclectic.

On “Revolution,” they conjure up Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian lo-fi funk, with dirty, grinding farfisa organ, reverbed-out guitar stabs, and a thick baritone lead horn section. On this track, it becomes evident how much Auerbach’s vocal approach owes to Dr John. “Big Shot” has a speakeasy feel, updated with Dr. John’s distinct rasp and the occasional voodoo wash of female backing vocals.

“Getaway” is a standout track that combines afrobeat rhythms with Band of Gypsys’ brand of acid-infused blues guitar. The drums are tastefully driving, using a soft-spoken cowbell as a ride cymbal and the rhythm guitar has a haunting open space tremolo. The usage of silence is key on this track; it seems to end, but the quietude is merely a pregnant pause that sets you up for a slap-in-the-face psychedelic barrage.

“Eleggua” has enough flute lead smoothness to be the lead track on a 1972 blaxploitation film. “Kingdom of Izzness” is the closest the album gets to the soul-blues of The Black Keys. On Locked Down, Dan Auerbach has unlocked Dr. John’s indelible spirit and unique soul, resulting in the legend’s best album since 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo. It certainly satiates a need for great, evolved soul music — one only hopes there is more to come.

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