Live Review: Dr. John
Dr. John—The Pageant—St. Louis, MO—August 4, 2009
When Dr. John first walked out on stage tonight, I was worried. The 68-year-old shuffled feebly over to his center-stage piano, leaning heavily on his walking cane. I thought for a second that he was going to add new meaning to his old nickname, The Night Tripper. But once he played the first flurry of notes that opens “Iko Iko” and sang in that familiar jive honk, I knew that the Doctor had just been doing the rope-a-dope. In fact, Dr. John only got stronger as the night went on—by the third song, he was standing at the mike and playing guitar; by the fifth song, the man was standing up behind his piano and performing a wide-legged dance.
He wasn’t the only one. The venue’s website promised that “The floor will be open for dancing!” and half of tonight’s crowd was down there to get gumbodacious and as close to the Good Doctor as possible. The show wasn’t as well-attended as I thought it should be, with many of the reserved seats unsold, but the crowd—mostly men wearing glasses—made Dr. John and his air-tight backing band feel at home anyway. The Doc was tricked out in pink pinstripes, with matching fedora and socks, a set of witch doctor necklaces, and shades, which he never removed. He was a cool cat: After songs, the audience would erupt, and he’d say things like, “Hey, hey, awwwlll riiight” in his lazy N’awlins drawl. In fact, the pleasant surprise of the night was the strength of that tough bugle of a voice—his singing was loud and assured on the shakers like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” nuanced and controlled on slow-burners like “I Like Ki Yoka.”
John’s band, The Lower 911, are three fellas from New Orleans—bassist David Barard (from the 9th Ward), drummer Shannon Powell (6th), and guitarist John Fohl (12th). Barard and Powell (a recent addition and a force of nature) made for a killer rhythm section, and the band’s dynamic playing made the lack of horns, synonymous as they are with the New Orleans sound, a non-issue. The former Mac Rebennack didn’t phone it in on piano either; he reminded us throughout the night why he was such a sought-after session ace in the ’60s; he worked the ivory hard on tension-and-release improvisational solos. John was squeezed between his piano and an old wooden organ, and every once in a while he would reach behind and fumble for the organ keys, like he was groping for the snooze button, resulting in a tricky bit of funk up and down the scale.
If I were to quibble at all, I’d point to the setlist, sort of a headscratcher that included just one song from his seminal 1968 debut, Gris Gris (the excellent “Mama Roux,” played on the organ), so the whole voodoo psychedelia element was passed over in favor of the Creole R&B Mardi Gras revue sound of his mid-career, heavy on New Orleans standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Lay My Burdens Down,” etc. He played homage to The Night Tripper a couple of times—both his piano and organ were adorned with human skulls, and on “I Been Hoodoo’d,” John played some rattlin’ bones percussion, hitting a bouquet of petrified sea barnacles with the penis bone of an aardvark (or something). But for the encore, what would you expect? “Tipitana”? “Such a Night”? Scratched! Instead, Dr. John led the band through “Save Our Wetlands,” an ecological plea from his Grammy-winning post-Katrina album, City That Care Forgot. The song is a jumper, though, capping a 90-minute set full of highlights, and as the band thumped through the song’s coda, Dr. John grabbed his cane and slowly creaked off into the shadows.
3.Let the Good Times Roll
4.Wake Up Baby
5.Keep On Goin’
7.I Been Hoodoo’d
8.Right Place, Wrong Time
9.How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)?
10.Tell Me You’ll Wait For Me
11.Cotton Fields/Goodnight, Irene
12.I Like Ki Yoka
13.Some Women Call Me the Doctor
14.Mardi Gras Day
15.When the Saints Go Marching In
16.Lay My Burden Down
17.Save Our Wetlands