Dr. John and Friends
The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac and his Music
Concord Music Group
Before there was a Dr. John, there was Mac Rebennack, a young session guitar player and producer working in the studios and bars of the Crescent City. Mac would have been an important figure in music history just for those early works, but when he relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s and became Dr. John, Mac became the personification and ambassador of New Orleans music and culture. His identification with the city has only grown stronger in the post-Katrina world.
On May 3rd, 2014, Dr. John got the Last Waltz treatment at the Sanger Theatre in New Orleans. Producer and bassist Don Was led the house band for the event with a cavalcade of stars paying tribute to Mac and his music. The performers and song selection are an interestingly reflective batch. For example, many people have only heard Mac’s version of “Indian Red”, a sacred song to the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes of New Orleans. On this tribute, Cyril Neville and Big Chief Jolly bring the song back to the streets. And while Mac recorded a nice version of “Life”, at this tribute concert the song is performed by Allen Toussaint, the song’s composer.
So a good part of the program is a general celebration of New Orleans music. George Porter Jr. runs down the prison classic “Junco Partner”, which has been performed by everyone from Mac to the Clash. Shannon McNally sings the Bobby Charles ode to hoboing, “Street People” and Dave Malone sings the Leadbelly classic, “Goodnight Irene”. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux takes us back to the streets with the Mardi Gras classic, “Big Chief”.
The concert is book-ended by performances featuring the good Doctor himself. The show opens with Dr. John’s biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time”, done as a duet with Bruce Springsteen. Andre Osborne does a nice version of “Somebody Changed the Locks” with the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Widespread Panic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band give “Familiar Reality” a gritty, funky workout. I was really pleased to see Warren Haynes chose to do “You Lie”, from Locked Down. I really love that record and it acknowledges that the Doctor is still writing great songs into his 7th decade.
The set closes with a trio of songs performed by the man himself. Terrance Blanchard provides some tasteful trumpet solos to the jazz ballad, “Come Rain or Come Shine”. The closing track, “Such a Night” is a crowd-pleaser (and was a stand out number in the Last Waltz). The Mac song that really got me though was the rendition of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”. It’s one of Mac’s spookiest, most voodoo infused tunes ever. This version highlights the interplay between the Doctor and his current musical director, Sarah Morrow. I’m happy to have a recording with Sarah’s electronically mutated trombone. The wah-wah trombone is appropriately hallucinatory on this song about herbs, murder and the occult.
Listening to this set makes me wonder how die-hard fans of The Band felt at The Last Waltz. Sure, these are killer performances of killer songs, but …. Where’s The Band? Call me a cranky old man, but I was hoping to hear a more Mac compositions. I’d also love to hear more of the Doctor with his current touring band. There is a deluxe package that includes a DVD of the performances. From what I’ve seen posted on YouTube, it might be worth the extra money. The double CD is definitely a worthy tribute to Mac Rebennack and his music.