Dr. John: Insides Out at BAM – Brooklyn, NY

Dr. John and Guests

Dr. John at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

A Louis Armstrong Tribute: 3/29-3/31

Locked Down: 4/5-4/7

Funky but It’s Nu Awlins: 4/12-4/14

Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, better known to music fans as Dr. John, began his career in the late 1950s as a teenage session guitarist in his native New Orleans, backing such local legends as pianist Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Art Neville, and R&B singer-songwriter Joe Tex. In the late ’60s, he launched a solo career as Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper, working a flamboyant persona steeped in voodoo lore and serving up a beguiling blend of funk, rhythm and blues, and psychedelic rock. (Those who, like me, caught his mind-bending shows during that era will never forget them.) After a few years he dropped what he has called “the mighty-coo-de-fiyo hoodoo show” to establish himself as a premier exponent (and preservationist) of the Crescent City’s incomparably rich and influential musical culture while also scoring Top 40 hits like “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night”. In the decades since, the prolific Rebennack has released a series of albums that explored all the facets of his extraordinary talent – barrelhouse and blues pianist, jazzman, bandleader, and, on his latest recordings, outspoken, left-leaning critic of the federal government’s betrayal of his Katrina-ravaged hometown and of social and economic injustice.

Now 71, the gray eminence of “Nu Awlins” (his preferred spelling) this year released a terrific new album, Locked Down, a collaboration with guitarist Dan Auerbach of the blues-rock duo The Black Keys, that evokes the gritty feel of his late ’60s-early ’70s classics while sounding entirely up-to-date. He and Auerbach, backed by the album’s musicians and the McCrary Sisters, a gospel trio, performed it in its entirety at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), in the second of three engagements that comprised his ‘Insides Out’ series at BAM’s Gilman Opera House. The event was the brainchild of BAM executive producer Joseph V. Melillo, who said it was the range of Rebennack’s work, encompassing rock and roll, blues, boogie woogie, funk, zydeco and jazz — that persuaded him to invite Dr. John to do the series. The only other pop artist to have had a residency at BAM was Paul Simon, in 2008.

Rebennack made the most of the engagement, which not only showed off his skills as a singer, keyboardist and bandleader but also presented a dazzling array of collaborators, most, but not all, from New Orleans, who brought their A-games to the gig. There were plenty of spectacular moments, but very little showboating — the guests came to celebrate Dr. John and the glories of New Orleans music.

A Louis Armstrong Tribute: Arturo Sandoval, Dr. John Photo credit: Dino Perrucci

The series’ opener, ‘A Louis Armstrong Tribute’, drew from Satchmo’s varied songbook, covering pop (“Wonderful World”, “When You’re Smiling”), blues (“Blues in the Night”), early jazz (“That’s When I’ll Come Back to You”) and Latin (“El Manicero”). Backed by his current octet, Rebennack, bushy-bearded and wearing a salmon-colored suit and matching banded fedora, his African walking stick at his side, handled most of the vocals, his distinctive raspy drawl and blues phrasing as strong as ever. He mostly accompanied, on the grand piano, the guest musicians and singers, leaving the bulk of the soloing to the five trumpeters — Arturo Sandoval, Roy Hargrove, and three New Orleans natives, Kermit Ruffins, Wendel Brunious and James Andrews. The ebullient Kermit Ruffins was the most Armstrong-like in his playing and a consistent crowd-pleaser. James Andrews, a big, extroverted performer who is the older brother of up and coming New Orleans star Trombone Shorty, delighted the audience whenever he appeared to blow hot licks and shake his formidable behind. Sandoval represented what Jelly Roll Morton famously called “The Spanish tinge” – more accurately, the Cuban influence — in New Orleans music. He and Dr. John made simpatico duet partners on “El Manicero” (The Peanut Vendor), the Moises Simon composition recorded by countless singers and instrumentalists, including Louis Armstrong, who covered it in 1931. Rebennack and company also infused “When You’re Smiling” with Latin flavor, turning it into a rollicking rumba.

Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones Photo credit: Dino Perrucci

Vocalist Rene Marie, a late addition to the roster, thrilled with her gospel stylings on “Blues in the Night” and engaged in salty comic banter with Dr. John on “Come Back to Me”, a number Louis Armstrong recorded with his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong. (Rickie Lee Jones, however, was underwhelming on her solo turn, “Makin’ Whoopie”.) Some of the show’s most moving moments came via the Blind Boys of Alabama. The gospel quintet founded in 1939 now is a quartet; of the original members, only the great Clarence Fountain survives, but he rarely performs with the group and was absent at BAM. Still, with longtime member Jimmy Carter handling the leads and accompanied by Ricky McKinnie, Ben Moore
and Joey Williams, the Blind Boys continue to deliver their signature sound, rich and soul stirring. Their gorgeous harmonies on “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” made that number one of the evening’s musical and emotional peaks.

A Louis Armstrong Tribute Photo credit: Dino Perrucci

The show ended, fittingly, with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, done classic ‘Nawlins funeral style, slow and mournful at first, with Rene Marie wailing with churchy fervor, before bursting into an up-tempo, polyrhythmic strut: the sound of celebration of the deceased’s life as the band and mourners make their way back from the cemetery. With all the evening’s performers on stage, the finale could’ve been chaotic, but it wasn’t. Each player blew a solid chorus or two as the band comped, the audience was on its feet and dancing, white handkerchiefs were produced and waved in the air.

Locked Down: Dr. John, Dan Auerbach Photo credit: Rahav Segev

‘Locked Down’, the following week’s show, began with a little bayou atmosphere — the pre-recorded jungle sounds that open the album — before Dr. John and the band tore into title track. With Dan Auerbach leading the ensemble and playing excellent blues and rock guitar, Rebennack and company took few liberties with the songs, for the most part reproducing their recorded versions. Leon Michels’ baritone sax figured prominently in the group sound, at times serving as a second bass. (Michels also doubled on electric piano, sitting next to Dr. John as the latter played some wild squiggly solos on Farfisa organ.) The set wasn’t entirely drawn from Locked Down; there also were four numbers from the Dr. John the Night Tripper era: “Mama Roux”, “Black John the Conqueror”, “Jump Steady”, and the one I was dying to hear, “Walk on Gilded Splinters”. Rebennack and the band served it spare and spooky, and Auerbach’s slide guitar solo was a perfect fit, but “Splinters” inevitably had less impact than in the old days, when Rebennack, in full Dr. John voodoo regalia, would glide through the audience followed by women in skeleton costumes, throwing handfuls of glitter dust – “gris gris” – at the audience.

Locked Down: Photo credit: Rahav Segev

Rebennack turned to the grand piano for a solo version of “Such a Night”, summoning up the carnival-esque spirit of Professor Longhair. The entire band returned for the encore, the boastful “Big Shot”, one of best tracks from Locked Down.

Funky But It’s Nu Awlins Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian

“Big Shot” turned up again, sounding even better, in the series’ final, and best installment, ‘Funky but It’s Nu Awlins’. That show began with Dr. John parading down the theater’s center aisle, followed by members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band making a joyous noise and second-lining dancers bringing up the rear. Ensconced on stage at his piano, Rebennack kicked off “Big Shot”, which this time had more ‘Nawlins strut than rock swagger. Next came “Iko Iko”, the Mardi Gras Indian chant that, in 1964, was a pop hit for The Dixie Cups. Speaking of Mardi Gras Indians, Donald Harrison, a virtuoso jazz saxophonist who in New Orleans is known as the “Big Chief” of the Congo Nation “tribe,” provided some of the evening’s most exciting moments, his solos full of harmonic sophistication and rhythmic drive. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, natty in black suit and hat, also was superb, offering beautifully paced and structured solos that evoked Louis Armstrong, right down to the glowing tone and rising glissandos. His duet with Dr. John on “St. James Infirmary” drew one of the night’s strongest ovations from the very enthusiastic crowd.

Irma Thomas Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian

Keyboardist Ivan Neville, son of singer Aaron Neville, teamed up with Donald Harrison for “Hey Pocky Way”, another Mardi Gras Indian chant, recorded in 1974 by The Meters, the influential funk band led by his uncle, Art Neville. Davell Crawford, rocking a pink fauxhawk, sang and played Hammond organ on two gospel-flavored slow jams. Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, was unsteady on her feet – she explained that she’d recently had knee replacement surgery – but the 71-year-old sang with undiminished assurance and gusto. She opened with her first hit, from 1960 (“You Can Have my Husband) But Don’t Mess with My Man”, followed by “Wish Someone Would Care”, from 1964. To my mild disappointment, she skipped “Time is on My Side”, which she recorded in 1964 and was covered later that year by some English band fronted by a lippy lead singer.

Funky But It’s Nu Awlins Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian

The latter part of the evening was just glorious, with Dr. John’s biggest pop hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time”, the Mardi Gras Indian anthem “Indian Red” (with words that express the resilience and resistance in New Orleans’ African American culture: “We won’t bow down”), a raucous take on Shirley and Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” and closing with “Big Chief”, the Earl Palmer composition closely associated with Professor Longhair.

Insides Out, I am confident, will achieve legendary status in New York’s cultural memory: it was one of those landmark events that confirms us in our conviction – maybe smug, definitely annoying to others, but not entirely unjustified – that we do indeed live in the center of the cultural universe. For all the rest of you (well, and me, too), I hope these concerts will be available before too long on CD, DVD, and digitally. The nine nights when Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and friends brought New Orleans to Brooklyn can’t just remain the fond memories of those of us lucky enough to have been there.

Locked Down: Dr. John Photo credit: Rahav Segev