Dr. John: Funky But It’s Nu Awlins
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Thursday, April 12
Better than: Getting your tax return in on time.
By the third week of “Insides Out,” Dr. John’s residency at the Brooklyn Academy might have been dubbed “Occupy Howard Gilman Auditorium.” The vibe at this high-culture outpost had been that powerfully transformed through a participatory democracy not often witnessed at supposed pop-star showcases. On Thursday night, protest was in the air—actually, it seemed more like junior-high misbehavior during assembly period when boos and hisses overtook a representative from JPMorgan Chase, the fourth pre-concert podium speaker on hand to celebrate BAM’s 150th anniversary (this was also board gala night). Such speechifying wasn’t the best of plans; still, BAM’s programming of “Insides Out” was starting to look like a brilliant stroke.
In his final and best installment, “Funky But It’s Nu Awlins,” Dr. John teased strands of legacy that have long informed his sound–inherited and hard-earned wealth and the dividends thereof, most of which predated BAM’s creation and Wall Street’s largesse. He and his cast of guest stars, all drawn from his hometown, required no podium, just some keyboards, guitars, a rhythm section and horns. They didn’t speechify; they testified. They drew upon the wily R&B, funk, and jazz traditions in which they’re all invested, as well as a shared nest egg of brass-band-led funeral and parade tradition and inscrutable Mardi Gras Indian culture–the stuff that imbues their music with something distinct: Funky, yeah, but it’s Nu Awlins. (Change the emphasis in that concert title a bit, add a “t,” and you get “funky butt,” a reference to the Buddy Bolden tune and the former North Rampart Street club once co-owned by trombonist “Big Sam” Williams, once a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; or just to your own ass when properly motivated.)
In the right hands, in the right place, at the right time, nothing is overdone or obvious. That truth is self-evident in the clubs and especially the streets of New Orleans. Transplanted and staged is another matter: Mock second-line parades and out-of-context Mardi Gras Indian chants run the risk of camp or worse. But when Dr. John strutted down the center aisle with singer Tami Lynn and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in tow, playing the Dozen’s “Bestival,” it was hard not to feel the hip-shimmying call-to-action of the real deal, and even to get an inkling of this ritual’s actual insurgent roots. Later on, when Dr. John played “Indian Red,” the traditional song that a Mardi Gras Indian once told me “is like the ‘Our Father’ for Indians,” he honored friends and ancestors in all sorts of ways: He used a version scored by the great Creole arranger, Wardell Quezergue, who died last year, and made famous by banjoist, guitarist, and bandleader Danny Barker, who is credited with reviving brass-band culture during a period of waning interest. We knew Dr. John came correct because he had a real-life Big Chief on hand, saxophonist Donald Harrison, who can be spotted in eight feet of feathers and beads leading his Congo Nation on Mardi Gras Day, and whose father was a Big Chief too. Harrison also sang a rousing version of “Hey Pocky Way,” a New Orleans funk anthem drawn from a Mardi Gras Indian chant. But mostly Harrison played his alto saxophone when called upon, in knowing, bluesy style and with subtle but telling flashes of the modern-jazz pedigree that makes him a standard-bearer on his instrument.
Dr. John was center-stage for all the night’s action, sometimes singing fine and craggy-throated vocals, sometimes playing piano, other times establishing mood and tempo on a Hammond B3 organ. This show was all about his bread-and-butter sound. Early on, he played “Big Shot,” from his new album Locked Down, and it sounded harder-hitting and truer that the version in collaboration with Dan Auerbach. Here was collaboration, too, but with an ensemble cast of stars, each capable of carrying a show, all drawing from the same native well. Might as well begin with the Dirty Dozen, who began and ended the show. Though the Rebirth and Hot 8 Brass Bands may own the streets of New Orleans for four-hour parades, though bands like the Soul Rebels may be stretching brass-band tradition anew, in a concert or recording studio setting, no one touches the Dirty Dozen, not least for the authoritative dance of Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone. (Among its pleasures, this concert featured two great baritone saxophonists, the Dirty Dozen’s Roger Lewis and Ronnie Cuber, a longtime Dr. John sideman.)
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s version of “Do You Know What it Means (To Miss New Orleans)” played in duet with Dr. John on piano, was full of brilliant details like a lovely staircase of chromatic steps heading to the bridge. Dr. John’s Louis Armstrong tribute happened two weeks ago, but here Payton summoned more of Satchmo than the whole of that 90-minute show, right down to the one thing we didn’t hear then: a perfectly executed gliss up to a final ringing high note. Payton shone on two other tunes, including a version of “St. James Infirmary,” set to a cha-cha-cha. Ivan Neville’s voice sounded sharp and urgent, especially on “Hercules”; his left hand at the B3 is a slippery wonder. Davell Crawford’s jabs at the B3 stung as if delivered by a heavyweight boxer, his two-fisted chords flattened us like a flurry of knockout punches. His version of “Junco Partner”—a tune with a long history, first recorded by Dr. John four decades ago—was at once desperate and uplifting, sung in urgent yet tuneful outbursts.
Singer Tami Lynn, born in New Orleans’ Gert Town and now living in Harlem, prowled the stage, all cheekbones and limbs, whipping up spooky sensuality on “Mojo Hannah”: With Neville on B3 and Dr. John on piano, she hewed closer to the fast-paced original recorded in the 1960s with her hometown The AFO Executives than her better-known 1971 reprise for Cotillion Records. Things felt complete by the time we got to “Indian Red.” I’d have gone home satisfied. But who wouldn’t welcome Irma Thomas? She dipped into beginnings, too, with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess with My Man,” with which she scored her first hit at 19 years old, and “Wish Someone Would Care,” which followed a few years later.
Much is made of Dr. John’s mysterious, mystical, swamp-ified invented persona. But this concert was wholly down-to-earth, conjuring only what we know as verifiable fact: Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr., from the Third Ward of New Orleans, making music with the people and vibrating with the energy of the places, the spirits and the rituals that enabled him to dream up that persona in the first place.
Critical bias: Those board members may want to spend some of their money on dancing lessons (or just that stuff out).
Random notebook dump: Listening to Nicholas Payton this night makes his recent online rants about the word “jazz,” and about his term “Black American Music,” take on fresh meaning.
Brad Farberman’s in-depth interview with Dr. John.
Larry Blumenfeld’s review of week one of Dr. John’s residency, which focused on Louis Armstrong’s catalog.
Larry Blumenfeld’s review of week two of Dr. John’s residency, which focused on Dr. John’s new album, Locked Down.