Nighttrippin’ : Dan Auerbach’s New Musical Adventures with Dr. John
Every so often, Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr.—the New Orleans pianist, composer and singer best known as Dr. John—will sit down and listen to some new music with his granddaughter. Most of the time, Dr. John chalks up the exercise as “family time” but when she played him a Black Keys record not so long ago, the 71-year-old icon took note. “This is the first time she hit a good nerve—something to pursue,” Dr. John says in his trademark Creole-sounding growl. “I felt something—a connection to the roots—but it went somewhere.”
Soon after, when The Black Keys were in the Crescent City, Dr. John met up with guitarist Dan Auerbach. They immediately hit it off and started tossing around ideas for a future project. “New Orleans is a city only held together by roots, and Dan understands the roots,” Dr. John says before pausing. “And roots are the only way you can get to the future.”
Their first onstage collaboration took place in June during Bonnaroo’s signature SuperJam when Auerbach and Dr. John led My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, members of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and others through a set of New Orleans classics. Though Dr. John somewhat curiously admits, “I never remember gigs, but everyone tells me it was something real nice,” the one-off performance was a highlight of the festival’s 10th year celebration and saw the guitarist step out of his typical comfort zone of the Black Keys.
During a break from the Keys’ heavy touring cycle this past September, Auerbach and Dr. John began work on a studio record in Nashville, Tenn., with a sympathetic backing band that included Poets of Rhythm drummer Max Weissenfeldt and guitarist/saxophonist Brian Olive as well as current Black Keys auxiliary players—and Auerbach utility men—bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels.
As it turns out, both Movshon and Michels were well-suited for the job of refreshing Dr. John’s funk/jazz sound thanks to their connection to the extended Daptone/Antibalas family: Michels co-founded the El Michels Affair and was an early member of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings; Movshon has played with the Dap-Kings, Antibalas, TV on the Radio and numerous other Daptone affiliates.
Auerbach assumed the role of producer and split mixing duties with engineer Collin Dupuis. “[We focused on] some music Dan and I were writing together,” Dr. John continues, before proudly boasting, “we just started putting some ideas down, and I realized how removed we were from anywhere we started.” The musicians reconvened in November to continue the sessions.
The guitarist also slipped Dr. John some hip-hop sessions from the Keys’ BlakRoc project that featured such legends as GZA, Mos Def and RZA. “He gave me a record of some hip hop kids he was working with to see some other sides he has done,” he says. “I really like that Dan is plugged into a lot of different stuff—that is what music is supposed to be about.”
After a busy year that saw Dr. John enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, reunite with The Original Meters and share the stage with younger musicians like Marco Benevento, the yet-to-be-titled record should not only cement Auerbach’s production and credibility but also introduce Dr. John to a whole new generation of musicians. “I think Dan’s been a special thing in my life,” Dr John says. “We stepped into some fresh dirt in some ways, it’s a blessing.”
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