Dr. John is talking about spirits. "It all starts with Eleggua," says the man born Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack in his distinctive New Orleans rattlesnake drawl. In Yoruba mythology, Eleggua is a trickster, an imp. It's also the name of a funky, shamanic track on the Doctor's rejuvenating new album, Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. "Eleggua is the spirit of tricknology," the singer-keyboardist continues. "When things start working together in mysterious ways, Eleggua probably got somethin' to do with it. I believe that. I really do, man. Eleggua is all over this album."
Then praise be to Eleggua. Though New Orleans aficionados have revered Dr. John, 71, going back to his 1968 spooky masterpiece debut Gris-Gris, it had been years, maybe decades, since he made an album that most casual music listeners couldn't dismiss as little more than an aural Crescent City souvenir. "It's hard being a musician that's out of fashion," says Auerbach, a longtime Dr. John fan. "When you can play that New Orleans stuff so well without even thinking about it, and can collect that paycheck ... you can't blame him."
But you can push him. On the urging of a friend, Auerbach visited Dr. John in New Orleans about a year and a half ago, offering to produce a new record. He'd use handpicked musicians. He'd do it in Nashville, out of Dr. John's comfort zone. He'd urge Mac to write about himself, and not fall back on stock tales of juju, conqueror root, and voodoo. "It's really easy for someone like him to put on a persona," explains Auerbach. "Mac could make up stories and have interesting lyrics and rhyme schemes, but could he write about his personal life? That's what I wanted from him." And that's what he got. "Dan was just real honest with me," Dr. John says. "I could tell he wanted just to make a raw record, the kind he makes hisself. My spirit told me to do it. You don't go wrong when you listen to your spirit."
Indeed. The just-released Locked Down is a fierce, flowing, enchanting album. Drummer Max Weissenfeldt and bassist Nick Movshon throw down a globe's worth of grooves — Ethiopian, Nigerian, primal R&B. Auerbach's gutsy guitar sticks-and-moves. And Dr. John? He lays thick, earthy keyboard riffs over everything. (Auerbach wanted him to avoid using piano.) Dr. John sings chant-like melodies mournful ("Ice Age"), prideful ("Big Shot"), wise ("My Children, My Angels), and, always, honest. "Dan had concrete will," says Dr. John. "He'd hear me talking about my kids and say, 'You gotta write about dat! He kept throwing things at me. Different things."
"Mac's catchphrase for the sessions was 'Don't matta'," recalls Auerbach. "It was, 'Mac, you wanna play the Farfisa or the Hammond organ?' and he'd say, 'Don't matta.' 'Mac, you want the girls to sing here or there?' 'Don't matta.' He was open to anything."
Auerbach and the other Locked Down musicians will accompany Dr. John for three nights of shows, April 5 to 7, at the Brooklyn Academy of music, part of a multi-week celebration of the New Orleans icon. "Mac's the genuine article," says Auerbach. "He was in New Orleans making music before it became a tourist trap full of people drinking green drinks in foot-long plastic cups. He was doing sessions in L.A. before it was cool. He's been around. You don't get to meet people with that kind of rich perspective very often."
And not many people get revitalized in such spectacular fashion. "Everything came together for this album," says Dr. John. "Mystically, spiritually, emotionally, and musically. I wasn't expecting it, but it came together. That's how the world works sometimes." Eleggua.