Jon Cleary/ Dr John show review
Dr John and the Lower 911 featuring Jon Cleary
Raleigh Amphitheater, Raleigh, N.C.
June 13, 2012
By Grant Britt
At times, Jon Cleary is not himself these days. But it’s not his fault. According to his website, he’s featured on the Dr. John Tour. And for some outings he gets a solo set before Dr. John. But at a recent show in Raleigh’s Amphitheater, although Cleary got plenty of face time onstage throughout the Doctor’s hour-long set, he only got about a minute to play on his own. But he didn’t seem to mind, acknowledging in a chat backstage after the show that since the Doctor only has a 60 minute slot on their current tour with Govt. Mule, there ain’t a lot of time for guest shots. Still, it would have been nice to have Cleary allowed to chunk in a tune or two of his own or a couple of the excellent covers from his recent Allen Toussaint homage album, Occapella.
But for Dr. John fans, it was paradise, a solid hour of the Doctor’s hoodoo swamp fonk. Looking like a Caribbean cruise director in his electric blue suit, Hawaiian shirt, and fedora with a gold headband, the Doctor took the crowd on a nostalgic tour of his back catalog.
Sounding like he was chewing on a wad of gravedirt, the Doctor rolled out 1968’s “Walk On Gilded Splinters. ” And if that wasn’t enough to clue you into exactly who you were dealing with, “Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” made it official. “Call me Dr. John, The Night Tripper,” he muttered in a wheezy rumble. “Got my sizzling Gris-Gris in my hand/ I got my medicine to cure all your ills.” But there’s a slight problem. Even though Dr. John is the featured player and singer, you had to look hard to see him when he sat down at the organ or piano because the grand piano blocked out everything but the top of his hat. But Cleary was easily accessible by sight and sound, right out front onstage, burbling percussively over the top of the medley.
“Right Place Wrong Time” stirred up some audience interaction, with this weathered-looking crowd of aging hippies throwing their hands in the air when the “Woo!” part in the chorus came around.
The crowd got its first good look at Dr. John when he picked up his guitar and stepped out front for some low down fonk on “Let The Good Times Roll,” finishing with a twangy rockabilly riff.
It’s tough showing your gris gris when your start time is 6:30 pm when its still very bright outside, but the Doctor and his assistants did a good job of spreading the hooodoo around like it was pitch black midnight. You had to look hard to pick out the two skulls resting on Doctor’s piano and organ but when you spotted them, you know you were getting the real deal. Bone player Sarah Morrow helped spread the fonk on “Big Shot,” from the Doctor’s new release on Nonesuch, Locked Down,with a raw wa-wa solo generated by a hand held plumber’s friend .
The Doctor disappeared back behind the piano for the Latin riddims of “Goin’ Back To New Orleans.” Cleary finally got some solo stage time, introduced by the doctor as “Johnny Cleary,” as he pounded out a Tito Puente style samba beat on organ. But it was only a brief spurt, then back to work for Cleary as background. The set concludes with the Doctor speaking in the unknown tongue, reciting some arcane sounding chant that if properly applied would no doubt stir your grits pretty good.
After the show, a very gracious and unassuming Cleary spoke about the tour and his new record Occapella. He’ll stay with the Doctor through the summer touring France, Germany, Ireland and the UK, as well as Australia and Japan. But in the fall he’ll mount a new tour to support Occapella. Cleary will be backed by the Philthy Phew, his new, stripped down three-piece, but says there may well be a Monster Gentleman or two on board as well.
His latest, Occapela, is a collection of Allen Toussaint covers. He denies it’s a tribute, saying he’s only “having fun” with Toussaint’s work, which was a major inspiration. Cleary sought out relatively obscure tunes except for one of Toussaint’s biggest sellers, “Southern Nights,” covered by Glenn Campbell. “I never much liked it,” Cleary said, adding that he thought it was too bright and bubbly. “I wanted to make it dark,” he admits, and he does just that. It’s more suitable for Halloween in his hands, with Cleary whispering about those southern summer breezes blowing up God knows what. “Wrong Number” is a great cut as well, also covered recently by Paul Thorn, Cleary says he hasn’t heard it. “Does it sound like mine?” he asks, smiling broadly when reassured that while similar, both cuts still retain the distinctive imprint of their coverers. Then its time to let him get some rest , get back on the bus for Kentucky tomorrow and then a long haul from there overnight to Oakland.
But wherever this tour stops, it leaves a trail of double keyed fonk that’s easy to detect, but hard to follow, as headliners Govt. Mule are finding out. A dual injection of Cleary and the Doctor creates a lot of new patients who won’t settle for any other treatment.