The few LPs he cut during this period — “Gris Gris” chief among them — ooze mysterious energies. Their voodoo funk is treasured by many fans who have no time for his post-’70s output. On his new album, “Locked Down” (to be released by Nonesuch on Tuesday), that old Dr. John resurfaces, courtesy of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, who produced the sessions.
“It’s very spiritual how the whole thing went down,” Rebennack says, recalling how his granddaughter gave him a Black Keys record, which he liked, and then “next thing I know, he pops into my life.” Auerbach recruited Rebennack for a “Superjam” at the 2011 Bonnaroo fest (the festival’s name comes from an old Dr. John album), pairing him with a crew of young musicians steeped in the raw, bluesy aesthetic found on Black Keys records.
Within months they were all in a Nashville studio, starting with nothing and improvising building blocks for “Locked Down.” Only later would lyrics and melody be added. Auerbach “knew I had this little bag of poetry stuff that I write all the time,” Rebennack said, and he helped shape that material into a thematic sequence that follows the singer from outlaw posturing (“Ain’t never was/Never gonna be/Another big shot like me,” he boasts) through to more spiritual and paternal concerns. The process was unusual but not uncomfortable. “I don’t have no one way to write songs,” Rebennack said. “I’ve writ songs with so many people, over a lot of years.”
Rebennack’s syntax, readers will note, is richly off-kilter. His patois is also littered with nonexistent words, effortless bits of color that occasionally have a purpose beyond decoration. When recording songs derived from actual voodoo rituals or secret societies, obscuring the source material can be a sign of reverence. Appearing as himself on HBO’s “Treme,” he once alluded to the hazards of recording traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants; on the “Locked Down” track “Eleggua,” he recalled, he couldn’t bring himself to use the exact language of ceremonies he’s known since his youth.
“I did some mispronounciations of stuff here and there,” he said, tweaking the word “mispronunciation” itself, “just to respect what the Reverend Mothers had taught me back in the game.” Rebennack, a longtime voodoo practitioner who said he has “had a lot of titles in the Church over the years,” said he doesn’t “think it would be correct” to put the real thing in a song. “But I did more of the real maneuvers than I ever have in the past.”