Dr. John revived his "Night Tripper" persona at the 2006 Bonnaroo Festival. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his sense of urgency about Louisiana and the Gulf region allowed his spiritual persona free rein in concerts and interviews for the first time since the '70s. He wore the garb on-stage and brought his entire history as a musician to bear in his performances. He's become a full-fledged activist who does his part educating the world about his geography's unique significance as a musical, spiritual, and environmental territory. As an album, Tribal, employs some of the spookier elements of Dr. John's earlier recordings like Gris Gris, but it's all rooted in blues, funk, folk traditions, and R&B that have been at the heart of his musical career since the '50s. His crack unit, the Lower 911, are augmented by a number of guests, including a horn section led and arranged by saxophonist Alonzo Bowens, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison (himself a Mardis Gras Indian Chief), a string section arranged by Wardell Quezergue, Derek Trucks on select cuts, and the fine backing vocal trio of Elaine Foster, Lisa Foster, and Erica Falls throughout. Dr. John wrote or co-wrote 13 of the set's 14 cuts (there are 16 on the vinyl version). Musically "Jinky Jinx," the title track with its Oglala Lakota Indian chant intro, and the guitar- and percussion-driven voodoo blues on "Manoovas" (with Trucks) hearken back to the '70s with better production. But current modes, such as slippery R&B and jazz, are fused on the album-opener "Feel Good Music," and a shimmering old-school New Orleans intro gives way to a laid-back yet fingerpopping political R&B in Allen Toussaint's "Big Gap." There's Southern-fried groove in "Change of Heart," (one of three songs co-written with the late Bobby Charles, whose memory the album is dedicated to; "Podnah" is another, but it's a nasty blues). A gritty, late-night funk saturates "When I'm Right, I'm Wrong" and "What's wit Dat" (a scathing admonition to eat healthy). He also lays down the socio-political second line in "Them," and the angry, jazz-fueled swagger in "Only in Amerika." Dr. John's piano and organ, which are everywhere present, highlight the beautiful closer "A Place in the Sun." When taken as a whole, Tribal is a revelation: it traces Dr. John's entire past, and integrates everything into a whole that is familiar yet points forward. Thematically, Tribal meditates on the state of the country and the world; it exhorts listeners to quit bullshitting one another because our mutual survival depends upon it. This isn't just a logical follow-up to 2008's excellent The City That Care Forgot, it's close to a career-defining summation from one of America's most important musicians.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek