A cluster of Dr. John fans – adorned in Mardi Gras beads and replicas of the colorful feathered headdress worn on his Locked Down album cover – waited impatiently, even howling at one point, for the second part of the Mavis Staples/Dr. John double bill. While they howled other fans snapped photos of the two skulls staring at the audience from the top of a black piano that silently announced that the “Night Tripper” would soon be in the building. Beside me a couple gossiped about a Dr. John show they had attended where his accompanying act “tried” to steal the show. Dr. John apparently kept on performing undisturbed by their showboating. “He knew he had nothing to prove,” said the gentleman protectively. “The people were there to see him!”
The pairing of Mavis Staples and Dr. John was inspired. Staples, singing gospel infused soul and R&B brought the Holy Spirit, making the tent feel like a church. And later Dr. John (born Mac Rebennac), singing the blues – once considered the devil’s music – would bring the gritty down and dirty.
It was officially nightfall when the band appeared, confidently jumping onto the stage and revving up the music. “Calling the Nite Tripper,” announced trombonist and musical director Sarah Morrow, before stepping aside to let the “good doctor” take the stage.
Wearing dark sunglasses, tiny red green and yellow feathers in his fedora, a red pin stripe suit, bone hooped earrings and that famous gray hair roped back by multi colored elastics, Dr. John strutted onto the stage with his embellished voodoo walking stick. In person, intrigue surrounds him like smoke. And the eerie paraphernalia he shrouds himself with is as identifiable as his New Orleans rough cat daddy voice. Without words – just a nod to the crowd – he sat behind the piano and began to sing.
Kicking off with “The Monkey,” once the show began it did not take a breath. The 73-year-old went through his broad catalogue of work spanning over 40 years with not a single pause. He alternated between the piano and keyboard, and later picked up the guitar for a rendition of “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” which made the crowd roar. His swampy nocturnal blues and “fonk,” as he coined it, transformed the tent into a nawlins blues bar.
Bringing a thoroughly new sound to each of his songs, and sing-talking in his celebrated jumbled speech, every song had you moving whether you could understand it or not. The challenge for new fans, not as familiar with his work, is sorting through iTunes trying to figure out which song they were singing along to the night before. Fortunately, many of his lyrics are so memorable that you can identify the songs fairly quickly.
Dr. John remained composed throughout the show. He didn’t do much talking to the audience, except for mumbling a dedication to people fighting for “our freedom” and introducing his band. Besides that he serenely ignored a man who approached the stage with his hand outstretched and never took off his sunglasses. He did, however, send out some mysterious smiles.
The funky band consisted of a small soulful set of musicians, most notably Morrow. With her fedora crooked to the side, she made her presence known immediately by giving a fantastic solo during “The Monkey.” Her impressive solos continued throughout the show and Morrow was embraced by the audience. At times Dr. John and Morrow seemed to be sharing the stage — and the adulation. (“You’re beautiful” screamed a woman when Morrow approached the front of the stage for her third solo of the night.) It was then I was reminded of the conversation regarding Dr. John’s humility when it comes to sharing the stage and the spotlight that the couple had spoken about earlier.
Like Staples, even songs from early in his catalogue – like “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” from l968 – sounded fresh. And when he sings “I’m a big shot,” you can’t help but think, damn right you are! While his 2012 album Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, introduced Dr. John to an entire new audience, the success appears to be just another feather in his fedora.
Performing for two hours, including an encore, Dr. John ended off an unforgettable, electrifying evening.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.