On "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch," Dr. John's searching for a reason to sing Armstrong.
Dr. John’s Locked Down reasserted the potency of the Dr. John persona, a hipster freak shaman whose music is sly and subversively funky in any physical, social or spiritual realm. The album presented a vocally animated and engaged Dr. John, snaking around cross-cultural grooves, and some of the live performances he gave since then suggested that this return to his roots produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach might mark a new direction. But like Loretta Lynn after being produced by Jack White and Bobby Womack after being produced by Damon Albarn, Dr. John has picked up where he left off before releasing Locked Down in 2012. Once again, he is interpreting New Orleans for the rest of the world on Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, and it’s an oddly anonymous effort.
Dr. John covers songs associated with Louis Armstrong, but it’s hard to hear his spirit in these tracks as the performances and arrangements lack distinction. Some horn charts are straight out of Vegas pit bands, while others are stronger but conventional. The band chugs along in a similarly noncommittal way, performing well enough to be casually funky but not so well or unpredictably that I was curious who played what. They’re good enough, which brought out the good enough in Mac Rebennack. He’s fine throughout, but only his aggressive, playful vocal in “Dippermouth Blues” stopped me and made me take notice.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat is a star-studded affair, and as is often the case on albums that collect ace contributors, the guest talents dominate. The best vocal of the set comes from Anthony Hamilton, whose “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” benefits from the anonymity of the backing band because it leaves room for him to be simply soulful. Terence Blanchard’s adds moments of dissonance and sophistication to “Mack the Knife,” so much so that it seems like it comes from another album. Rebennack's duet with Bonnie Raitt on "I've Got the World on a String" is fun, but it's fun in the same way that his duet with Rickie Lee Jones was on "Makin' Whoopie" in 1989.
The album’s not a fail; Dr. John’s too innately interesting and talented to fail, but it sounds like he didn’t have a clear idea of why he should cover Armstrong songs, nor what he had to bring to them that only he could bring. It’s not obvious what he thinks the spirit of Satchmo is, and the guests sound like an effort to hide that absent core. It’s disappointing to hear him back away from the conceptual and musical precision of Locked Down by following it with Ske-Dat-De-Dat, where Dr. John sounds like a guest on his own album.