“Mesmerized by the Funk”
By Michael Katz
When Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) walks onstage at the Santa Monica Pier Thursday night, the late boomerhood patrons up front, who have arrived early with their portable chairs and staked out a turf where they can sit and listen in comfort, rise as one. Mesmerized by the funky New Orleans rhythms, as if touched by the voodoo that Dr. John will later sing about, they clap and stomp and sway, they do not sit down the entire ninety minute set, nor do the younger folks behind them.
This is the groove that Dr. John has perfected. His voice is weathered, enticingly edgy. He doesn’t have a great vocal range, but he stays inside it, bending familiar tunes to his fancy. There is a hint of malice, a danger simmering below. It wouldn’t be a good idea to cross Dr. John, would it? It’s a good thing he and his band, the Lower 911, are on our side. Dr. John’s piano style is New Orleans raggy honky-tonk, but he doesn’t show us too much of it. It’s like dashes of salt, chunks of okra tossed into the gumbo to keep it simmering. It is not until late in the evening that Dr. John gives us an extended run on the keyboard. Though he has devoted his latest album to New Orleans’ struggles post-Katrina, his performance stays short of politics until the end, until the audience is so deep in his spell that the message has some staying power.
Some of the standards that have become staples in his act fit perfectly with his range and persona. “Makin’ Whoopee” is sly and mischievous, not quite as up front as the Ray Charles version, but raucous and funky in its own way. “St. James Infirmary” seems to come out in a guttural growl, and you’ve got to search a little to find the familiar line. Dr. John has done several versions of “Blues in the Night,” including a memorable one with Nicholas Payton and Dianne Reeves on the trumpeter’s Dear Louis album. At the Pier the emphasis is on the blues, with Dr. John squeezing the lyrics into a narrative shout out, letting the Lower 911 behind him keep the groove going. “Let The Good Times Roll” falls in the same category, though it features him on the guitar, an entertaining break from the keyboards.
Besides his take on standards such as these, there are tunes Dr. John has made his own, like “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Here the vocal range is perfect, the joyful funk a perfect accompaniment to the encroaching chill on a late summer night. It’s at this point that Dr. John breaks out “Save the Wetlands” from his City That Care Forgot album. Bristling with anger, the lyrics come out clearly, Dr. John following the money trail behind the destruction of the wetlands that gave Katrina an unrestricted path to the failing levees. He finds room in the gumbo rap to pillory BP and rage about the oil spill, and urges the crowd to get off their behinds and write their Congressman in support of Louisiana. Of course, this is Santa Monica, our Congressman is Henry Waxman, so he is preaching to the choir. Maybe we should be writing to other people’s Congressmen. But I digress…because it is back to the foot stomping melange of rhythm and funk for “Down In New Orleans, where we are finally treated to a longer run on the piano, and eventually an encore with Dr. John out front on solo piano, before concluding with a rollicking “Somebody Else Will.”
The show opened with Eddie Baytos and the Nervis Brothers, an appealing amalgam of zydeco, ragtime, funk and whatever else they could throw into the pot. Baytos leads on the squeeze box as well as piano, organ and vocals, but he is backed up with talented musicians everywhere in the band, including a robust four man horn section up front. They hit some familiar tunes like Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” and “Folsom Prison Blues” featuring Cary Park on guitar and vocals. Drummer Ziggy Modeliste sat in for a rousing version of Clifton Chenier’s Hot Tamale Baby, which the band washed down with “Tequila.” It’s a versatile band that had the audience rocking and in a perfect mood for the main event.
“If I Don’t Do It, Somebody Else Will”
By Mike Finkelstein
On Thursday night Dr. John closed the Twilight Dance Concert Series at the Santa Monica Pier with a flourish. The musical theme was firmly rooted in the styles and rhythms of Louisiana, which the audience grooved to consistently. Because the Louisiana Bayou/Mississippi Delta region connects the Mississippi River and the Caribbean Sea, Louisiana has always been a melting pot of musical activity. Over time, musical styles and cultures from northern cities like St. Louis and Chicago, rural places like Mississippi to the east and Texas to the west of the Delta, and from further south in the Caribbean have often merged and blended with vibrant results. Remarkably, popular music from jazz to blues, gospel, Cajun, Calypso, Zydeco, rock and roll, and nearly anything in between, usually traces back to this area of the world. A favorite son of New Orleans, Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, has always done a masterful job of blending these elements into his own elegant but funky delivery. In fact, he has been awarded five Grammy awards in jazz, blues, rock and pop for his efforts.
At the Pier, he mixed new material from his latest release Tribal with an overview of a career that has spanned more than 40 years. Dressed in a purple suit, a stylish fedora, and walking with an ornate gris-gris cane, the 69 year old legend had the crowd’s undivided attention as soon as he walked onstage. Rotating between Hammond organ, grand piano and even electric guitar he put his own inimitable stamp on all the songs. This musical identity is in the tapestry of his rolling piano style, inspired by the likes of Professor Longhair, and his unmistakable vocal delivery. Dr. John’s voice simply sounds like nobody else’s, a beguiling blend of twang, grit, and drawl that simply evokes the Bayou whether he is speaking or singing. A cooler voice would be nearly impossible to find. And, because he doesn’t actually push a lot of air while singing, his voice has remained nicely intact over the years.
Dr. John and his stripped down band — guitarist John Fohl, drummer Herman “Reese” Ernest III, and bassist David Garard — punched the funk into nearly all the tunes on Thursday. They played standards like “St. James Infirmary,” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” a song by Earl King that guitar stylists like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan both hot-rodded under the title “Come On” to suit their guitar prowess. Dr. John put this song over beautifully with his voice, more than with his guitar.
The program did address the struggles that New Orleans is still enduring in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in songs like “Save Our Wetlands.” The song served as a reminder that a place like New Orleans, despite the happiness and beauty it has brought into the world, is still suffering. The disappointment and indignation that many people in the area feel over the way the situation has been treated will probably be a presence in any New Orleans oriented show for years to come.
Soon afterwards, the band launched into Dr. John’s biggest hit, the cleverly grooving and very upbeat “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Although the funky electric piano and horns of the original recording were noticeably absent, the song went over hugely. He closed the set with the beautiful “Such a Night,” which featured the memorable line, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
The show made for some interesting people watching, as many folks of all ages got into dancing alone, free form. Several very young kids got completely taken in by the rhythm of it all, and it was a nice little illustration of what a basic human instinct the attraction to music is. These kids were mesmerized with no inhibitions by Dr. John’s sound.
The show was opened by the Nervis Brothers, who specialized in New Orleans funk and played a very tight, energetic set that even featured a tuba bass line at one point. The band and the audience were treated to an appearance by Ziggy Modeliste of the legendary bringers of the funk, the Meters, sitting in on drums toward the end of the set.
Photo by Tony Gieske.