New Orleans piano giant Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John has been getting some of the most high profile exposure of his career since the release of his latest album City That Care Forgot. Tuesday he appeared on the David Letterman show and played to a packed house in New York's Highline Ballroom. The atmosphere was far different from a New Orleans throwdown from Mac -- for one thing the audience was seated at tables, making dancing a difficult proposition. But Mac had something to say, and the New York crowd listened attentively.
Though there were seven players in his band, Mac continues to call the group "the Lower 9 11," something he's been doing for at least six years now. The reference is to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and there may well have been 11 members at some point. The connection to how the world has changed since 9/11 is hard to miss, and the celebration of the neighborhood where Dr. John rambled back in the day and where many of his musician friends come from is eerily prescient now that it has been completely destroyed "like it was hit wit' an H Bomb" as he told the crowd. New York and New Orleans share a sorrowful wartime bond dealing with the scars of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the wholesale destruction of New Orleans by the post-Katrina federal flood, which made it seem like the war was being waged by the government against its own people. Other towns in the country are currently suffering through similar unrecoverable disasters, and it certainly doesn't look like anyone has any intention of doing anything about it. Accordingly Mac isn't buying any of the political bromides being offered in an election year, an appropriate stance for someone who watched Ray Nagin appear to almost purposefully bungle the recovery effort in New Orleans despite his campaign promises to make New Orleans "Chocolate City" once again.
"The road to the White House is paved with lies," Mac sang tartly.
Unlike a lot of the narcissistic angst and kneejerk punk rabble rousing that passes for political discourse from the latest generation of white rock stars, Mac's political observations don't shy from establishing motive and pinning specific blame on the bad guys. The motive: "Black Gold," an anti-Big Oil polemic from the album delivered early on in the set. The bad guys: "Cheney and Haliburton." When Mac spit out those names it was as if he had invoked evil spirits. A palpable shiver ran through the audience.
The New York Times recently ran a piece which claimed that Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" has become the anthem of post-Katrina New Orleans music. The writer Geoffrey Hymes witnessed an extraordinary performance by the great New Orleans vocalist John Boutte at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in which Boutte made the song his own, adding new lyrics about the destruction of the lower ninth ward. It was a career defining performance, and Hymes wrote a moving profile of Boutte for OffBeat magazine based on it. But his enthusiasm to project the song onto the rest of the city's performers was misplaced.
There is indeed a post-Katrina anthem in New Orleans music, a song written several generations ago in reaction to the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged New Orleans but still resonates in the wake of a flood that left so many mourning members of their families. The song is "St. James Infirmary" and Dr. John chose it to open his set, playing it in an eerie, dirge-like mambo.
After the show Dr. John entertained a handful of guests in his dressing room. The rigors of an intense touring schedule and his Ancient Mariner's determination to tell his story before it's too late have taken a toll on this road warrior and he admitted to being tired. But when I told him I wrote for OffBeat his eyes brightened.
"You the guy who wrote dat review of the album," he said with an approving smile. "Man, you really got it!"
Here's that review:
City That Care Forgot
By John Swenson
Dr. John has always been a superior songwriter. A master conceptualist, he envisions lyrics and music as part of an overall vision. He is one of the very few denizens of the fertile New Orleans R&B scene of the 1950s to translate the miniaturist art of the three-minute hit into the longplayer ethos of funk and rock. His conceptual power travels further into his interpretations of other writers’ songs. Unlike most New Orleans groups who use cover material as simple fodder for jamming grooves with little regard for the original song structure, Mac Rebennack translates everything he touches into Dr. John material.
Aside from his apocalyptic glimpse at the chaos of late-1960s American culture on his second album, Babylon, Rebennack has rarely ventured into topical material. In fact, many of his lyrics make up a kind of secret language corresponding to the sound of his music. But he has been politicized by what he views as a wholesale governmental betrayal of New Orleans before and after Katrina, beginning with the shoddy construction of the levees that failed in the storm surge and continuing through the corruption and deceit of the recovery effort. He’s written about this for the Voices of the Wetlands, but now he’s devoted nearly an entire album to the subject, City That Care Forgot.
This subject matter is so important to Dr. John that he has enlisted several writers to help him put his point across, including a trusted old friend, Bobby Charles, the author of “Walking to New Orleans.” The trademark Dr. John delivery, relaxed and offhanded, still comes across in large part, but it’s spiked with the unmistakable catch-in-the-throat sound of an angry man. It’s a startling transition for those who’ve followed him over the years, and it gets your attention.
There are several cameo pieces here—the inspirational “You Might Be Surprised,” the environmental anthem “Save Our Wetlands,” and a great song about the city’s controversial campaign to stamp out second line celebrations, “My People Need a Second Line” with a terrific guest shot from Trombone Shorty.
Over the course of the rest of the record, Rebennack outlines the framework of an epic American tragedy in point-by-point observations, drawing on what some might call urban myths to paint a powerful picture of systemic betrayal and genocide.
In “Keep on Going,” he references the Hansel and Gretel story of being lost in a forest to describe those driven from their homes by the storm. They left that trail of bread crumbs, but it was washed away, and now “the only home you got is your own self.” He mythologizes himself as “a samurai of the Holy Lost Cause,” and asserts that the levees were blown “with intention.” He attributes motivation to that intention in “Land Grab,” accusing the politicians and their corporate backers of trying to run the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard off their homes in “the biggest land grab since Columbus.”
Everywhere he turns, he sees evil in the world—trigger-happy Blackwater private security forces who used deadly force without legal restraint in the chaotic days after the storm, much needed resources wasted in Iraq, and behind it all Bush, Cheney and Halliburton. But alongside the anger is a deep wellspring of sorrow. In “We’re Getting’ There,” he writes of people he knows losing the battle to rebuild their homes and giving up. “Ask anybody if they knew a friend that died from suicide,” he notes coldly.
That sorrow reaches its apotheosis as a motivating factor in Rebennack’s world on “Stripped Away,” a loving remembrance of New Orleans before the storm.
Few people have done a better job of codifying the spirit of New Orleans over the years, offering tributes to its musical forefathers and participating directly in nearly a half century of its most important music. On City That Care Forgot he may have fashioned its most elegant obituary.