“Does anybody need a Doctor?”
That was the cue from the stage at the Lexington Opera House earlier tonight that ushered in Mac Rebennack, the vanguard New Orleans pianist and song stylist known better to audiences as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and musical shaman Dr. John.
With that, the good doctor took a seat at the piano and offered a quick primer in his musical ancestry (Professor Longhair and Huey Smith were the most visible inspirations) by hammering out a medley of Iko Iko and Shoo Fly. The carnival had officially begun.
This was an evening of many surprises. To begin with, the concert was advertised as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, tying the evening into Rebennack’s 2014 Satchmo-themed album Ske-Dat-De-Dat. That wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the only tune offered from the record was a gospel heavy reading of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Even then, Rebennack re-assigned vocal duties so he could color in the spiritual bliss on piano.
What the 100 minute show turned out to be was, if anything, considerably more special – a detailed glimpse into Rebennack’s early years as Dr. John that excavated tunes from six of the seven groundbreaking albums the pianist cut for Atco Records between 1968 and 1974.
Some of the material was familiar, like the 1973 hit Right Place Wrong Time, the only tune of the night where Rebennack switched from piano to a small portable keyboard to replicate the tune’s ultra-funky clavinet groove.
Others were rich in New Orleans tradition, like Big Chief (from 1972’s Gumbo) and Mardi Gras Day (from 1970’s Remedies) that unlocked the second line syncopation of drummer Herlin Riley and a highly efficient five-member band.
But the show also went deep into the psychedelic voodoo side of the Dr. John persona for tunes that have long been absent from Rebennack’s shows. Among the rarities were the title tune to 1971’s Babylon, where musical director Sarah Morrow wildly refashioned the song’s electronic incantation for trombone, and Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, where the 74 year old Rebennack sounded eerily like the young Crescent City medicine man that first conjured the tune in 1968.
That, friends, was just what the doctor ordered.