By MELLISH // Spirits were conjured, snake oil was sold, hearts were moved, the story and the storyteller were old. / Photo by John Rudoff
OMN East-Coast correspondent saw Dr. John before the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival.
Spirits were conjured, snake oil was sold, hearts were moved, the story and the storyteller were old.
The spectral flesh of Dr. John played at his best, in a black suit with white skeletal shaped inlay around his large frame, with long, thick cylindrical tied dread pony tail as a mane. Large, wraparound shades lay underneath a black fedora with gold at its base and a gilded, decorated band -- large feather at the back standing at a 45 angle of its own choosing, at nobody’s command.
Two walking sticks seemed to almost move on their own underneath John’s hands, with intricate, wood carved handles and decorated flair, as he strode slowly to the chair in front of the baby grand. A small velvet blanket throw shrouded in black, edged with red pattern on the large instrument faced the audience at the center of the stage, with a skull comfortably set on top…casting a spell to whoever looked directly back, no matter the age.
The historic Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. hosted Dr. John before July 4th, with audience seated around tables on the floor, balcony seats up on the sides, and a ceiling 50 feet high or more. The Dr. opened with Iko Iko demonstrating once again, how the great New Orleans bands always keep the crowd in the palm of their hand.
Immediately though, he pulled out “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” -- the seminal closing track of his first LP, 1968’s Gris-Gris, few seemed to know. Credited to Dr. John the Night Tripper, he’s shared all along that it’s based on a traditional voodoo church song.
Then the spell cast harkened back to that record’s first track “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya.” Quicker than you can say NOLA, and a switch to early 70s keyboard lines, came his biggest hit though it should ostensibly be reserved for last, “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
A band of quality backing musicians, who made the headliner stronger – on guitar, bass, drums, and trombone, delivered the conditions for a cultural icon … who moved like he won’t be with us for very much longer.
Dr. John started as a session keyboardist and guitarist in the late 1950s, but a gun accident damaged his hand in the early '60s, and he gave up guitar chords to concentrate exclusively on keyboards.
Legend has it, that one night, Dr. John defended a friend and band mate who was being pistol whipped, & placed his hand over the attacker’s gun. It discharged, severely injuring his left ring finger, which meant his guitar playing session days were done. The injury before a show, would lead him to concentrate on piano.
When you least expect, when the tide has seemingly turned, after being the object of reject, the truth -- until later, hasn’t always been learned.
Knowing that after the fact explained the crowd becoming jarred when the man originally known as Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack stood up and walked away from the piano to pick up a guitar. He laid down slow blues licks and worked to find a groove, with the effort of somebody who still wanted to click on the instrument, despite having nothing left to prove.
Loud, joyous laughter across from me followed after the opening notes on piano keys, of “Bare Necessities,” as my girlfriend warmly recognized the Jungle Book piece, and danced in her seat.
The show featured originals, songs made famous with Dirty Dozen horn players, and more N’Awlins All Stars, and paid homage to the past like the song “Goodnight Irene” by Leadbelly, because Dr. John’s hometown is nothing but a continuum of musical history.
He cancelled a show and went to the hospital some months before. I texted a picture from the show to a musical friend to say look at this … who replied back “I was sure he was on death's door.” I replied, “He is.”