Dr. John’s anger over Katrina powered The City That Care Forgot to greatness

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It was perhaps apropos that Dr. John, the consummate ambassador for New Orleans music, was the first to come out with an album responding to the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Sippiana Hericane was short and perhaps not fully realized, but it was out a scant three months after the catastrophic event and captured Dr. John’s initial shock, sorrow and ultimately hopeful reaction to it.

For a more fully formed commentary on Katrina and the sorrow and hope that turned to rage, return to The City That Care Forgot, released on June 3, 2008. His blunt message was directed squarely at the Washington politicians: We’re still suffering and in your greed, you’ve forgotten about us.

The good thing about the anger is that angry artists tend to be more invested in their work. There was a certain grittiness to The City That Care Forgot that had been missing from most of Mac Rebbenack’s work for a couple of decades, and it was great to see him return to the sound of his Allen Toussaint days when the Meters and the Bonnaroo Horns backed him up. Those roles were filled quite amply on this new project by Dr. John’s Lower 911 band, marking their third Dr. John record in a row.

As seems to be the trend more recently, The City That Care Forgot was stuffed with a parade of special guest appearances. But unlike most such records, it didn’t disturb the vibe much. Eric Clapton’s tasty licks on tracks like “Time For a Change” and “Stripped Away” build upon a long history as a vastly underrated sideman. Fellow New Orleanian Terrance Blanchard contributed trumpet on a couple more tracks. Dr. John was also joined on a singing duet with Willie Nelson, although Willie’s appearance here didn’t match up nearly as well as a contemporary collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.

Perhaps the most important guest contribution came from legendary Cajun songwriter Bobby Charles. He helped Rebbenack pen five songs on this set of all-originals, and wrote one more by himself. The songs recalled the golden age of New Orleans funk, but there’s fury with that funk. The anger was reflected in songs of frustration (“We Gettin There”), indignation of greed (“Black Gold”) and environmental concern (“Save Our Wetlands”), and a plea for help (“My People Need a Second Line”).

Not every song on The City That Care Forgot was memorable, but the focus on the theme made even the lesser tunes hold together with the better ones. Just when people might have been ready to roll their eyes at yet another Katrina-themed album, Dr. John delivered one of the most sincere offerings – and he was man clearly inspired to bring enough of his “A” game to make sure people were listening.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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