Dr John has always had a distinctive, instantly recognisable sound, and his latest release Tribal is certainly packed full of music, with a running time of 66 minutes. The album – released as a double vinyl LP as well as a single CD – is musically immaculate, mixing blues, jazz and funk into a New Orleans melting pot. Lyrically, it’s not nearly so interesting, and as a singer, the best you can say is that his voice is individualistic.
Dr John is enjoying something of a late-career renaissance. His last album, also recorded with the Lower 911 in 2008 and called City That Care Forgot won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. That album had a strong theme running through it – the state of New Orleans post-Katrina – and Dr John addresses social problems on this album too. “Big Gap”, which has a bright jazzy feel with nice piano and keyboards, is about poverty: There’s a mighty big gap between the rich and the poor, if the rich wasn’t rich, would the poor have more? And on “Only In America” he despairs about the social problems of poverty, crime and poor education affecting the “land of the free”.
“Jinky Jinx” revisits the theme of being jinxed by bad luck that gave him one of his big hits, “Right Place Wrong Time”. “Whut’s Wit Dat” has some amusing and apposite lyrics about the virtues of healthy eating: If you’re eating white bread, you’re walking with the dead, Eat potato chips you’re sinking like a torpedoed ship. And he also raises a smile on “When I’m Right (I’m Wrong)” when he realises that, when arguing with his girlfriend, When I’m right, I’m wrong, When I’m wrong I’m wrong.
The Lower 911 are a four-piece band, so in addition to the traditional guitar, bass and drums there’s an additional percussionist, as well as Dr John himself on keyboards. Several tracks have brass, giving a distinctly jazzy feel to songs such as “Them”, “Potnah” (that’s Dr John-speak for partner) and “Music Came”. It’s quite refreshing in an era of guitar-dominated music to hear keyboards and percussion to the fore on most tracks. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to finally get a guitar-led track, 14 songs in (called “Manoovas”, and featuring a guest appearance from Derek Trucks).
The title track features some authentic tribal chanting, which is reprised at the end of the very last track. Overall, Tribal seems a worthy follow-up to City That Care Forgot, and while it may not win Dr John a lot of new fans, it’s worth a listen.