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Sunday, October 20, 2013
The pop music world is full of survivors, and it would be fair to call Mac Rebennack Jr., aka Dr. John, one of them. But it is the rare survivor who continues to create vital music well into his 70s.
New Orleans native Rebennack, who will turn 73 on Monday, is just that rare.
In a 75-minute show at Jefferson Center on Saturday, Dr. John and his band, the Night Trippers, led a sold-out crowd of more than 900 on a tour that included the earliest part of his solo career as well as 2012’s Grammy-winning album, “Locked Down.” Along the way, Rebennack and the five-piece band pulled out plenty of Big Easy chestnuts, sprinkling them with their own funky style.
Rebennack, front and center at the corner of a Steinway & Sons grand piano and a multipurpose Nord synthesizer, showed that there is plenty of life in his fingers and plenty of fire in his raspy baritone, even if there isn’t a lot of spring left in his step.
He rose a couple of times, though, to great effect. During “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” from his iconic 1968 album, “Gris-gris,” he stepped gingerly beside the piano and reached behind a skull that sat atop it to pick up the kind of percussion shaker that a hoodoo priest might use for a spell. He shook out a sizzling groove as the band backed an effects-laden, psychedelic trombone solo from the night’s other star, band leader Sarah Morrow.
Later, he moseyed over to stage right to pick up a Fender Telecaster. He used it to pull out some old-school blues riffs on the Earl King song “Mama & Papa,” complete with a mess of jazz chords to close the song.
Rebennack had begun his musical life on guitar, performing and recording with the likes of Professor Longhair. A nightspot shooting in the early 1960s damaged his ring finger and forced the switch to piano. After he moved to the West Coast, trouble not far behind, he created the Dr. John character, based on a New Orleans voodoo practitioner apparently connected to a Rebennack ancestor.
It is easy to imagine him as Professor Rebennack — “professor” being the title bestowed on great New Orleans pianists — had he not created Dr. John. Over and over on Saturday, the band dropped out as Rebennack flashed timeless Professor Longhair-inspired chops.
For most of the night, though, he locked in with the band, getting deeply funky and bluesy on such songs as the 1973 Rebennack hit “Right Place, Wrong Time,” the set-opening cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Call That A Buddy,” the “Gris-gris” number “Mama Roux” and the second-line popping standard “Iko Iko.”
About midway through the set, Rebennack broke out three consecutive numbers from last year’s “Locked Down” — the title cut, “Revolution” and “Big Shot.” Live, those numbers came across more as jazz-funk workouts than they had on the Dan Auerbach-produced disc, which won the 2013 Grammy Award for best blues album (his second blues Grammy in five years).
But the doctor was about letting his players’ personalities shine, putting a little NoLa stank on just about everything, right down to the sweet-shuffling encore, “Such A Night.”
After all these years, Dr. John still has the mojo hand.
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