Locked Down, But Not Dragged Out
by Allen Thayer
In 1963, Tom Hoskins headed South to check out Mardi Gras and try to locate a musical hero, Mississippi John Hurt, more than forty years after he’d last been heard from. He convinced an underage female acquaintance to supply the wheels, and using a clue found in one of Hurt’s songs, they located the seventy-year-old bluesman. As a result of Hoskins’s mission, Mississippi John Hurt recorded his songs for the Library of Congress as well as three albums of classic country-blues for the Vanguard record label. When Dan Auerbach (guitarist, vocalist, and producer for the Black Keys) got it in his head to locate the then seventy-year-old New Orleans icon and pianist Dr. John, all he had to do was call the good doctor’s manager. Younger musicians and music fanatics have been resurrecting long forgotten or underappreciated musicians from pop culture’s back pages since the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s, with each successive generation laying claim to different eras and styles. Dan Auerbach, Jack White, and the lesser-known soul and funk disciples from Brooklyn to Berlin are the backward-looking folkies of our generation, using their fame and industry access to remind some of us, and introduce the rest of us, to legends like Loretta Lynn, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Ike Turner (who the Black Keys were set to collaborate with for Attack & Release before he passed away), and Dr. John.
Locked Down, set for release on April 3 on Nonesuch Records, started as Dan’s idea. “I was just shootin’ the shit with a friend of mine, and we were talking about Dr. John and how great those early records are,” Dan recalls. A call to the manager of Mac Rebenack (Dr. John’s given name) resulted in the two meeting for a couple days in New Orleans to feel out the collaboration. What Dan didn’t know at the time was that one of Mac’s granddaughters had recently left him with one of the Black Keys’ albums thinking he would like it, which he did.
“All of a sudden, [Auerbach] spiritually pops up here and wants to meet me,” Mac says. “I jumped on a plane,” Dan says. “I had never met him before. I flew down to New Orleans and went over to his place and spent a couple days just hanging out, listening to music, talking about music, talking about politics, conspiracy theories, family, you know, life on the road, that kind of stuff.” The collaboration unfolded organically from there according to Dan and Mac. “We got together and next thing I know, we wrote some songs here at the pad, and all of a sudden we was just recording. I like the way that all happened like that. Spiritually, I know this,” Mac muses, “you gotta roll with it and accept whatever it is.”
Mac’s been doing more than rolling with it in recent years. The recent assaults (both manmade and natural) on his hometown of New Orleans supplied Mac with plenty of subject matter and emotional motivation, fueling his most recent triumphs. Last year, Dr. John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2008 he won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for The City That Care Forgot, and his recurring role in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Treme, adds to his recent achievements. As one of the few musicians who span the Professor Longhair and Harry Connick Jr. eras, Mac’s emerged lately as an outspoken defender of New Orleans’ cultural legacy. “It’s never gonna be the same as it was, but New Orleans is still a special, spiritual place,” Mac told Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times. “People need to know about this place, it’s important.”
When asked if recording with Dan and his guys was a different experience than his latest projects, Mac says, “Well, yeah, it’s more like stuff I did in the ’50s and stuff, or ’60s actually. A lot of this music is connected in some kind of way to stuff from my Gris-Gris and Babylon records.” It was the sound and feel of these late 1960s records that Dan tried to capture with this new record. “I wanted him to get more into that kinda beat poetry,” Dan says, alluding to Dr. John’s first four albums released on ATCO between 1968 and 1971 and credited to “Dr. John, the Night Tripper.” These albums mixed Afro-Caribbean rhythms with New Orleans R&B piano, a dementedly funky rhythm section, wraith-like backup singers, and layered with morally and spiritually ambiguous lyrics alternately sung and spoken in Mac’s Nawlins hipster patois.
“I didn’t want to make a retro album,” Dan explains. “We didn’t record it in a retro way. We recorded it live on the floor, but there’s lots of low end.” Beyond the technical aspects, Dan worked on Mac subliminally with musical influences playing in the background over lunch or between sessions. “I wanted him to get into some new stuff, musically. I wanted to keep him away from the clichéd fonk, you know?” During their initial courtship in New Orleans, Dan tried out some different sounds on Mac. “We listened to a lot of music that I thought he would dig, like Mulatu, some of that older Ethiopian stuff where there’s lots of Farfisas, and he just dug that stuff so much.” They also listened to “hip-hop instrumentals, some psych, some old soul 45s, you know, some obscure stuff I thought he might dig.” Building on these diverse musical touchstones and inspired by Mac’s earliest solo records, Dan called on a dream team of musicians to execute this appropriately opaque gumbo of styles and influences. “I tried to make it current, a new record, but I wanted to get musicians who understood old records and appreciated them and had old souls.”
With the exception of the fraternal gospel group the McCrary Sisters, the rest of the players on Locked Down are, like Dan, younger guns reared on hip-hop and more influenced by dusty sounds found on old records than their musical contemporaries. Dan had already worked with bassist Nick Movshon and keyboard player Leon Michels, both fixtures on the Brooklyn soul scene and members of the El Michels Affair on Truth & Soul Records. “I initially got in touch with Leon and Nick about touring with the Black Keys because I loved the records they made,” Dan says. “That Lee Fields My World record is an amazing album.” Next, he called on Max Weissenfeldt, a Berlin-based drummer who’s the inspiration for most up-and-coming old-school-styled funk drummers as one of the founders of the first-wave retro-funk group, the Poets of Rhythm/Whitfield Brothers. Dan: “Max is one of my favorite drummers ever. And I knew that getting Nick and Max together in a room would just be insane, and it was. It was so much fun watching those two guys play together.” Ohio native Brian Olive might seem to be the odd man out, except for his garage-rock pedigree shadows Dan’s, and his skills as a rhythm guitar player, backup singer, and horn/woodwind player added to the group’s versatility. “I wanted everybody to be able to do multiple things, because that was the nature of the session,” Dan says. “We had nine days in studio, and we gotta make the most of it, so I’m gonna take these guys who are great at a certain instrument, but can also jump on a lot of other things too to fill out the sound.”
Dan lucked out when the promoters of a serendipitously named music festival caught wind of his plans. “The people at Bonnaroo heard that I was getting ready to make a record with Mac,” Dan recounts, “and they suggested that they call it a Super Jam—they do one every year. And it actually turned out to be an amazing way for me to get all of these musicians together, because Max lives in Berlin, and all of these musicians I wanted for the record live really far away, so it was an amazing opportunity to get my dream set of players in the same city to see if it would work before I got everybody together to make a record.” New York Times music critic, Ben Ratliff, called their performance “almost evil: deep and oozy, close-to-the-vest, low-frequency funk.”