IN TUNE : When a living legend speaks, you best listen. “This is only the 880th oil spill [in the Gulf] since 2001,” Dr. John told a packed house Tuesday night at City Winery in Manhattan. “Call your [expletive] congressman and say, ‘I don’t like this shit’.” Backed by the airtight Lower 911, the good Doctor then cut into “Black Gold” with a fury stunning for a man a few months shy of 70.
With the possible exception of the Neville Brothers, Dr. John is the most distinctively recognizable talent to come out of New Orleans since Fats Domino. And since Katrina hit his beloved home, the hoodoo king has been reminding people about “The City That Care Forgot,” with a musical mastery matched only by the late Professor Longhair — and, to a degree, Allen Toussaint.
Opening with “Iko Iko” merely set the stage for what was to come — a mix of funk, blues, Dixieland R&B and even Tin Pan Alley standards that had the usually polite City Winery crowd hootin’ and hollerin,’ before the Night Tripper eventually brought them to their feet with (what else?) “Right Place, Wrong Time.” (If you get a chance, look up what “a little old brain salad surgery” means.)
He was on his feet himself early in the set, playing a pretty mean Bluesiana guitar. But he’s a clever beast, the good Doctor, and he marched the adoring throng like a piper right into his church — wrapping his still-powerful cords around “Makin’ Whoopee,” playfully romping through “Some Women Call Me the Doctor,” bopping through “Traveling Mood,” and setting the night’s first fire with “Only in America,” his protest against both a country that has the most penitentiaries in the world and a home state that leads the way.
“I’m not happy about this,” he said of the current penal system, closing the door behind everyone.
Several songs later, having played a Mardi Gras revue — capped by “When the Saints Go Marching In“ — that had the revelers shouting for more, Dr. John turned away from the keyboard again and said his piece.
Tricked out in a crimson, pin-striped suit, black fedora with matching shirt and hatband, argyle socks and his famed tooth-filled necklace, the former Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack spoke with such fire that the buzz in the crowd stilled to a whisper.
“The Constitution of the United States starts with three simple words,” he said, in his familiar drawl. “We the people….”
He blasted the politicians who claimed the BP spill wasn’t that bad a disaster — and said he was disappointed that he’d voted for President Obama, based on the government’s response to an environmental nightmare that not only destroyed countless creatures along the coast but also decimated his favorite fishing hole.
There was even more bile for BP and the corporate greed that he said created the entire mess in the first place.
And even though he has a fascinating new record out (“Tribal”), you wouldn’t have known it unless you were paying close attention. Dr. John didn’t hawk it — in fact, he mentioned it in passing early and the subject didn’t come up again until a band member reminded the audience near the end of the set.
Now and again, the pony-tailed Night Tripper reached behind and played an old wooden organ with his right hand while surfing the ivories with his left. Not once did his energy lag — he skipped through improvisational solos that seemed to play themselves — nor did that of his crackerjack band.
Dr. John didn’t come in on airs. He earned the right to pound the bloody pulpit by dishing up genuine homemade gumbo. The agenda was clear: If he couldn’t bring people to the real New Orleans, he’d bring the real New Orleans to them.
In a way, he created a sort of Lower 911 funeral march, celebrating a rich, magnificent American musical history while reminding everyone of a human account that, yet again, is pitifully overdrawn.
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