Looking back on such faded pop stars as New Kids on the Block, Bobby Brown, and that guy who sang that piña colada song, it’s natural to feel your resentment towards the megastars of today ease just a little bit. After all, these folks, no matter how gargantuan their fame might be now, are merely the kings and queens of a disposable culture, and once they have been used up, their naked banality will be revealed for all the world to see. If we want to be them right now, we would want to be anyone but them when they’re washed up at 30 with their whole life behind them.
On a somewhat lower stratum of celebrity are those whose names are legendary to a select few and unknown to all others. They are the cult heroes, toiling away in obscurity and even poverty, making some of the best art of their generation. Such a man is Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. He was not the original New Orleans R&B cat, nor was he the most famous (Fats Domino) or the most revered (Professor Longhair). Others have had more enduring singles than he (Lee Dorsey, among others), but Dr. John still stands out in the Crescent City as the man who best survived the transition from 45s to albums. Huey “Piano” Smith is beloved by his fellow musicians, but to the CD generation, he is a one-hit wonder, thoroughly undeserving of the $16 it takes to acquire that one hit with all its attendant filler. Dr. John, however, has Gris-Gris, Gumbo, and In the Right Place, as well as several fine best-of collections. Because of this, he has become the 21st century spokesman for New Orleans R&B and a national treasure in the eyes of all that care about preserving America’s musical heritage.
If this pantload of reverence has any effect on the good Doctor, it doesn’t show. As evidenced by All By Hisself: Live at the Lonestar, he treats his body of work as a loose blueprint for entertaining a crowd, not great art to be meticulously reproduced. Alternating between his own tunes and New Orleans standards like “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and “Stagger Lee”, Dr. John takes as many juicy liberties with the songs as he does with the English language (e.g., “Gratefullishusly Thanx to . . .”, from his liner notes), heedless of the purist desire associated with today’s roots enthusiasts. “Such a Night”, a song Dr. John himself ridiculed on the audio commentary for The Last Waltz, appears here with an intro that strolls for over a minute before meandering into the song. “Junco Partner” gets transformed just as dramatically. Absent the excellent second-line drumming of the studio take on Gumbo, Dr. John casts it in a new rhythmic mold, one that sounds less made up on the spot as selected at random from a musical encyclopedia built in his head over countless years of listening. “Qualified” suffers the most from the solo treatment but highlights the polyrhythms in Mac’s playing that are often submerged in big band arrangements. The effortless, casual feel of the set, taken from a 1986 show, functions as a much-needed reminder of the imprecision that makes roots music sound so good, and modern stabs at it sound so sterile.
A neat if odd bonus of All By Hisself is a DVD of Dr. John being interviewed at his piano by a man who poses every question to show off his own erudition and generally does everything possible to win the prize of Weirdest Interviewer Ever. Dr. John is gracious and knowledgeable, doing a fine job living up to his status as the avatar of New Orleans’ musical tradition. There’s nothing revelatory about it or the album as a whole, and the plans to have this as just the first of over 20 installments in the Rebennack Chronicles are, in a word, excessive. Still, it offers up another offhand slice of a genre inexcusably underrated by a music world that has never understood offhandedness. The converts should dig it, and the heathens should get themselves converted quick or get slapped upside the head.