New Orleans’ very own Dr. John has a familiar sound. The swampy jazz, funk and soul of the Bayou has flowed forth from him since the 1960s, at times following different directions, but always staying true to its roots. The piano swoons, the bass swings, and his gravely vocals lay truth on the line. It’s a comforting sound, one that touches the soul. His latest, Tribal, played with backing band The Lower 911, does just what we’ve come to expect from the good Doctor. A follow-up to his 2008 album, The City That Care Forgot, in which he took anger out on those who let his beloved city stand hurting, Tribal makes no secret of his continued displeasure with the state of affairs in this country.
The album starts out on a positive note with “Feel Good Music”, a slow funk proclaiming, “I’m a feel good doctor and I don’t lose/make ya feel good and ya won’t refuse”. But he wastes no time getting to the thick of things, as “Lissen At Our Prayer” begs our respect for all life, and “Big Gap” (co-written with Allen Toussaint) attacks the financial class differences becoming evermore present in the United States. The title track sums up the general message of the album: all humans are one, so we must live together and help each other.
The album also features some tunes of a lighter tone. “When I’m Right (I’m Wrong)” and “Jinky Jinx” take some playful jabs at his own faults in the world of life and love. A shout-out is given to the world champion New Orleans Saints with a “Who Dat!?” chant thrown into “Sleepin’ in my Bed”, and “What’s Wit Dat” has so much hop, it could physically pick you up and move your feet for you.
The hardest hitting tracks come towards the end. “Them”, also co-written by Touissant, is a spooky tune, and asks whom we will blame next for our problems (there’s always someone else, after all). “Manoovas” is four minutes of electric blues featuring the slide guitar of Derek Trucks alongside a dark, driving bass line.
Tribal is not just another Dr. John album, nor is it simply a call for action (neither of which would be at all painful, by the way). The poignant lyrical message conveyed through most of the album, coupled with the ability of the music to keep you uplifted, is perfectly reminiscent of the spirit of New Orleans. Even though times could be better, there is always a reason to go on.