Dr. John and the Lower 911: “Tribal”

But of course there’s a new Dr. John album in 2010, a year in which celebrating the culture and musical legacy of the Big Easy has been a thread running through major releases– a year that gave us Mardi Gras-ready party albums by Trombone Shorty and the Galactic Crew, to name but a couple. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, the music of New Orleans has been flowering, and it’s in full blossom in 2010; and of course, the music of Dr. John is the music of New Orleans. Why wouldn’t he jump into the celebration? How could he resist?

But John’s Tribal is a celebration of a slightly different sort. It isn’t City That Care Forgot— though it’s clearly rooted in the same post-Katrina awareness, and some of that album’s sobering political themes are once again in play, it’s a much more celebratory and varied release than that one– but neither is it cut from the same cloth as Shorty’s Backatown or Galactic’s Ya-ka-may. Those albums are very much of a piece– they feature many of the same musicians– and they’re all about looking forward to the city’s bright musical future; their roots are as much in hip-hop as they are in more traditional New Orleans idioms like jazz and R&B. John’s vision lays in a slightly different direction– it isn’t looking backward, really, so much as it’s taking stock, consolidating everything he’s done and acting as a remarkably assured and complete career summary– which, of course, doubles as a pretty good primer on the last fifty years or so of New Orleans popular music.

Working once again with his hot Lower 911 unit– who anchor everything here in tight, in-the-pocket grooves– John relishes in his gift of merging smooth New Orleans soul, rock, R&B, hoodoo blues, and even jazz expressions into something seamless and whole. This is a thick, intoxicating sonic brew that really cooks from the first note to the last, drenched in organ, punctuated by horns, adorned in loving but spare string arrangements. There are after-hours lounge grooves, and rowdier numbers that would have rocked any nightclub in the pre-rap era. And there are spookier elements, as well– eerie organ vamps that highlight the city and the performer’s more eccentric qualities.

It’s an album about Dr. John, and, by extension, it’s an album about New Orleans– or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, it stands tall as a career highlight and summary, as well as a reflection of a city’s culture, its music, its politics, and its ecology. That John would begin the album with a party invitation called “Feel Good Music” is both completely unsurprising and oddly comforting; the title summarizes everything John’s ever done, and the song could have introed basically any of his recordings, and yet it’s crucial that his post-Katrina urgency about the city that he loves is still married to his mission of making music that, well, feels good— and what more fitting homage to the city’s past and present alike could there possibly be?

On its own, a song like that could seem frivolous; here, it sets the tone for an album that sizzles with Mardi Gras-ready craziness but masks grim concerns and serious sentiments under its feel-good surface. The second song, “Lissen at Our Prayer,” is a sort of religious melange that reflects both the city’s diversity and its spiritualism: Expressions from different faiths are invoked in a sort of universal prayer that has ecological salvation at its heart. Its timing with the BP spill in the Gulf is probably a coincidence, but it couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Dr. John really unloads in “Only in America,” a furious track that channels the political outrage that’s been inseparable from New Orleans ever since the Bush years, while “What’s wit Dat”– a tirade about healthy eating– nicely highlights both the socio-political anger and the underlying eccentricity of this music.

But make no mistake: Though it may have weighty concerns lurking inside it, Tribal is every bit a celebration– because really, a true-blooded New Orleans album can’t help but be a celebration. Sometimes its hometown adoration comes from looking outside– notice how the opening influences of Indian music in the title cut reflect the city’s varied cultural milieu– but it also comes from looking back. John wrote three songs with the late Bobby Charles– an undersung artist whose possession of the city’s musical spirit is unimpeachable– and, of course, there is an appearance here from Allen Toussaint– as a songwriter, not as a performer– who, ever since his jazzy, joyful The Bright Mississippi released, has been the city’s patron saint and its cultural ambassador. Toussaint actually performed on the Shorty and Galactic albums from this year– and his contributions to the city’s music are nodded to in new releases by Cyndi Lauper and Mavis Staples, as well– and here his “Big Gap” is done as late-night funk. Lyrically, it’s a sharp take on class division and economic inequality; musically, it’s just a party. It’s music that feels good, and it’s music that’s more than meets the eye– in other words, it’s a worthy stand-in for Tribal itself, its presence here underlying why John, too, is a New Orleans treasure, and why his music is still vital for all of us.

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