So many famous folks are turning 70 this year — from Ringo Starr to Al Pacino to Nancy Pelosi — it almost seems like the hip thing to do. But among the musicians hitting the milestone, Dr. John of New Orleans, the eternal Nighttripper, is alone in hitting a creative peak not heard since his youth. His new album, Tribal, along with 2008's The City That Care Forgot, present a veteran wizard who blends blues, rock, soul, pop and his own take on New Orleans voodoo-music that he calls "fonk." These days, he sounds wise but juicy, righteously angry but graced by wit.
The endless horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina seem to have roused Dr. John out of an autumnal trance, as it did other New Orleans natives Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. John was thumbing through America's back pages — the songbooks of Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington, for example — not responding to current headlines. No question, these ruminations were delightful, full of ideas and never tossed off. But Dr. John wasn't worked up, didn't develop a head of steam.
That changed with City That Care Forgot. Dr. John had never made such a protest album, filled with broke-down people, built-up profiteers and pithy lines like, "Life is a near-death experience." One prophetic highlight was "Black Gold," which could serve as the anti-anthem to the Gulf oil spill.
City That Care Forgot was heavy with star turns from the likes of Eric Clapton and Terence Blanchard. And if the guest appearances on the new Tribal are more low-key, they're also less of a distraction. And despite caustic numbers like "Big Gap" and "Only in America," Tribal is not as angry an album as City That Care Forgot. "Whut's Wit Dat," for example, is a droll complaint about the oceans of fast food everywhere. Other numbers are brain-teasers with philosophical points. A vocal duet with drummer Herman Ernest, "Them," pokes fun at people addicted to blame.
Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, has always been a bone-deep professional, and part of that means not dropping out of the game and being ready to respond when inspiration — or outrage — strikes. Part of professionalism also means knowing that exposure on a hot TV show like Treme indicates that it's time to give it all you've got on record.
And Dr. John has done that. Tribal has the grandeur and savvy of your favorite crazy uncle. People don't appreciate how tricky it is to deliver this persona in popular music. Loudon Wainwright III hits it at times, Bob Dylan and John Prine stumble across it regularly. Richard Thompson should try to find it more often. But none of them will be as fonky as Dr. John.