CD Review of City That Care Forgot by Dr. John and the Lower 911
Recommended if you like
Doug Sahm, the Neville Brothers, Harold Battiste
Label
429 Records
Dr. John and the Lower 911:
City That Care Forgot

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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D
espite what your girlfriend might tell you every year on her birthday, the human capacity for forgetfulness serves an important purpose. When faced with information that defies comprehension – like, say, thousands of people dying or losing their homes in Hurricane Katrina – the brain often simply gives up, moving on to focus on more entertaining stuff – like, say, what color bra Miley Cyrus is wearing in her latest MySpace photo. It’s shameful, sure, but without this instinct, the overload would quickly cause many of us to lose our minds.

Of course, given a push in the right direction, we can always remember – which is why Dr. John’s latest album, City That Care Forgot, is so important.

The news cycle has long since moved past the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 – and it never really addressed the gross (some would say willful) incompetence that typified the government’s response to the disaster – but the city’s wounds are still fresh, and its rebirth didn’t end when the camera crews packed up and flew off to their next assignments. Dr. John has been one of the city’s foremost cultural ambassadors since the late ‘60s, so he’s uniquely qualified to fashion a musical response – and his perspective is sharper than most. Joined by a parade of guests, including Eric Clapton, Terence Blanchard, Willie Nelson, and Ani DiFranco, the good Doctor takes his rage, sets it to a second line rhythm, and fires off a series of volleys at Washington.

Politics are the last thing most people think of when they listen to Dr. John’s music, and not without reason; he’s carefully cultivated his psychedelia-tinged, party-loving voodoo priest persona for over 40 years now. He’s always had a social conscience, though, and – as City That Care Forgot makes abundantly clear – he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Time and again, he turns a yellow eye on the government. In the funked-up “Say Whut?” he addresses President Bush’s response to Katrina: “Say it’s a job well done / Then you giggled like a bitch / Hopped back on the Air Force One.” The seething “Dream Warrior” proclaims that the city’s destruction was brought about “with intention,” and draws the line straight back to institutionalized American racism, saying “The strange fruit of today / Ain\'t hangin\' from no tree / Layin\' on the ground / Left to rot right where they drowned.” Trading lines with Willie Nelson on “Promises, Promises,” he reminds us that “The road to the White House / Is paved with lies.”

It sounds dark, and it is, but this is still a New Orleans album – so if you aren’t inclined to crack the booklet, or pay attention to the lyrics, you can still lose yourself in 13 sides of prime, greasy Dr. John. It’s a party, in other words, but it ain’t nothin’ but a party. He co-wrote all but one of these songs (five of them with the legendary Bobby Charles), which is, along with the subject material, a large part of why he sounds so connected with the material. If you’re a longtime fan who was disappointed with lukewarm mid-period releases like Television and Duke Elegant – or even 2006’s fine-but-unnecessary Johnny Mercer tribute Mercernary – you’ll be pleased to discover that the Night Tripper still has plenty of gris-gris left.

Taken at musical face value, City That Care Forgot is immensely enjoyable; pay attention to the songs, and you’ll be hard-pressed to argue that it isn’t one of the most important (and emotionally satisfying) releases of the year. Either way, it’s another stellar album from a man who’s been making them longer than most.

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