The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and his Music
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
When a concert tribute to the venerable New Orleans musical force of nature Dr. John kicks off with a duet between the show’s star attraction and Bruce Springsteen tearing into John’s biggest hit “Right Place Wrong Time,” the challenge is to follow that up for the next two hours. But with a musical cast consisting of luminaries from John’s hometown buddies such as Cyril, Aaron and Charles Neville, John Boutte, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Anders Osborne and Irma Thomas, along with such roots notables as Mavis Staples, Widespread Panic, and Jason Isbell among others, that is merely the tip of a very large iceberg of music.
As has been usual for previous artist tribute shows with high profile musicians (Levon Helm, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gregg Allman etc.), Don Was gets the call for musical director duties. He does his typically fine job matching the artists with songs, helping choose the tunes and keeping the show focused on its star. The 22 track double CD (a DVD/Blu-ray is offered separately) was recorded at a single show at the Sanger Theater in, where else?, New Orleans, back on May 3, 2014; its eventual release over 2 years later seems peculiar. The video was already cablecast in March, 2016, a full six months before this audio component was finally available.
Regardless, this is a classy and not surprisingly vivacious and consistently rousing performance that, like much of the music from New Orleans, remains timeless in its spirited and overall rootsy vibe. Tellingly, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack to his mom) who has been a professional musician since his sideman work in the ‘50s, isn’t necessarily the star. He only appears on a handful of tunes (three that close the show) and wrote less than half the performed selections. Rather, this is just as much a celebration of music from and about New Orleans. Classics such as “New Orleans,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Stack-A-Lee,” “Junko Partner,” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love” that John has been associated with, are highlighted in joyous, superb, loving performances by artists like John Fogerty, Chuck Leavell, Mavis Staples, the ubiquitous Warren Haynes and others influenced by the city’s legendary sounds.
That includes gospel, funk, swampy rock and roll, soul and of course jazz, all of which are represented. It’s tough to pick highlights from these two hours (edited from the original four hour show with the closing all-in “Iko Iko” conspicuously MIA), but Staples tears into “Lay My Burden Down” with her typically churchy fervor, the late Allen Toussaint is his always sophisticated self on his own “Life” and Mac with his band leader/trombonist Sarah Morrow end the proceedings with his classics “Walk on Guilded Splinters” and the appropriate “Such a Night,” both in stirring form.
Perhaps more Dr. John participation would have been a logical and welcomed addition to the show (Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell and ex-Papa Grows Funk man John Gros effectively cover most of his piano parts) but this remains a terrific few hours of music that honors not only one of New Orleans’ most influential musicians, but the city that formed and defined his vision.