Dr. John is known for his linguistic switcheroos. This time around, he's pulled a musical one, according to the KÜbler-Ross five stages of grief. His latest album, City That Care Forgot, out this week, is actually his second project addressing the catastrophic levee failures of nearly three years ago and the subsequent inadequate response by the federal government. If his 2005 Blue Note EP Sippiana Hericane, a passionate, grief-misted meditative requiem for the city, was sadness (Stage 4), then the wry, bitter, funky new album is definitely Stage 2: anger. Mac was not available for an interview at press time, but I talked to him at length last spring, when the album was in its nascent stages, and by the way the conversation went, I should have known. At the time, I'd heard he was doing some writing with the elusive Louisiana icon Bobby Charles (who gets co-writing credit on six of 13 tracks), and he was in talks regarding the vintage set he was going to play at the 2008 Ponderosa Stomp. I asked if it was going to be a throwback to his R&B, pre-Night Tripper days. "You can hang whatever jacket you want on it, when it's done," he said, irritably. "It ain't done yet." He then steered the conversation back to the atrocities heaped on New Orleans by the federal government and kept it there. Mac was good and pissed, and just about ready to talk about it.
City That Care Forgot is the fruit of that simmering fury, (the press release calls it "righteous wrath") and it's a triumph, musically and politically. The reliably scratchy, nasty funk and boogie of his Lower 911 Band is augmented by appearances from transplanted New Orleanian (and seasoned activist) Ani DiFranco, plus Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Terrance Simien, Troy Andrews and Terence Blanchard. Dr. John has made New York his home base for many years, but if anything could prove that the longtime exile still has his heart in New Orleans, for better or worse, City That Care Forgot is it. (Semi-hyperbolic lyrics from the track "Dream Warrior" leave little doubt: "I'm a samurai of the holy lost cause/ Of the river and the bayou and the fishing holes/ Louisiana born, Louisiana brave/ Louisiana gris gris from the Lower Nine graves.") National reviews, including Newsweek and The New York Times, have rightfully hailed the record as the formidable and funky manifesto that it is, but most importantly, it passed muster on home turf. In pouring rain at Jazz Fest, and in slightly more comfortable circumstances at the House of Blues, Mac tried out a few songs from the album, and New Orleanians responded with knowing, rueful smiles and resounding cheers.
Mac's familiar growling rasp, wry delivery and winking turn of phrase make the protests and indictments on the album all the more biting. Topics range from macro to micro, from the war in Iraq to dealing with contractors to the relative morality of second-line fees. And never one to pull punches, on the track "Say Whut?" he offered up this summary of President Bush's actions following the storm: "Say it's a job well done, say it's a job well done / Then you giggled like a bitch / and hopped back on Air Force One."
The glut of Katrina-inspired music that emerged immediately after the storm seemed to demonstrate a remarkable lack of need to emotionally process the catastrophe on the part of many artists. Possibly, that's why many projects though deeply emotional " wound up ham-handedly blunt and sub-par as craft. (I still think the best local musical response to the whole mess was 5th Ward Weebie's very direct single "F*** Katrina.") The tragedy was still too close, and the songwriters were still whipsawed by it in ways that they might not have even understood. After three years, it seems like the flow of storm records has stemmed somewhat, but the incisive power of City That Care Forgot suggests a potential new stage in creative interpretations of the storm, and the decisive middle finger the federal government seems to keep flipping the Gulf Coast. After six months or a year, the responses were emotional, muddy with tears, but after three years of processing what went and still goes on, that sadness and anger is honed to a razor's edge.
Contact Alison Fensterstock at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Dr. John's latest album is a funky and venomous collection of songs about Katrina and New Orleans' resilience.