It’s been a busy 2017 — or a busy first six months of 2017 — for Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. In February, the New Orleans piano legend welcomed the NBA All-Star Game to his hometown as part of a video that featured him performing his 1973 funk classic “Right Place Wrong Time.” April found him holding it down at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with his all–Crescent City band, the Gris-Gris Krewe (including special guest Charles Neville). With tour dates running through September, in Colorado, California, and Texas, Dr. John, at 76, has no real plans to retire. When not on the road, he can be found back home in New Orleans — or more precisely, in a small town across Lake Pontchartrain. But this week he’s back in New York City for a night at Town Hall as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival.
Backed by the Nite Trippers, featuring Eric Struthers (guitar), Roland Guerin (bass), and Herlin Riley (drums), Dr. John will perform with another New Orleans keyboard guru, Henry Butler. A decade younger than Dr. John, Butler has been known to lean a little more toward jazz than the good doctor, adding a stride piano groove to the classic New Orleans cross rhythms handed down from Professor Longhair. Butler has called Brooklyn home since 2009, and you can catch him solo June 29 at LunÀtico in Bed-Stuy.
Dr. John has over half a century of music making under his belt, going back to his teens. As a session musician in New Orleans in the Fifties, and Los Angeles in the Sixties and Seventies (as part of the Wrecking Crew), he’s played with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Frank Zappa, and in recent years he’s worked with Pharrell and Janelle Monáe. His 2012 album, Locked Down, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and won a Grammy for Best Blues Album (one Dr. John’s six Grammy wins). A few years back, when Dave Grohl journeyed to New Orleans for his HBO series, Sonic Highways, Dan Auerbach reminded Dave: “Dr. John is cooler than you will ever be.” Around that same time, Mac served as a guest judge on an episode of Top Chef and laid some lingo on millions of foodie viewers (#hiptang).
In 2016, he released “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s The Jungle Book soundtrack, and that same year he received the Jazz Foundation of America’s Hank Jones Award at “A Great Night in Harlem,” which raised $1 million to help Baton Rouge musicians recovering from the Louisiana floods. That night, at the Apollo Theater, Mac performed with John Mayer and Jon Batiste — which he now says was his favorite show he’s played in New York City. He talked to the Voice about New York City, his legendary collabs, and his love of hot sauce.
You came to New York City in the Seventies. Has New York always treated you well? And are you looking forward to coming back up to play with Henry Butler?
I was staying up in Washington Heights. It was great to be there. I’ve always felt that New York was a step away from everything good. And yeah, I love playing with Henry…he’s a bad motor scooter [laughs].
Will you be doing anything new together?
I hate to put business on the street, but I will try to give the people everything that they want. It’s a good thing. Everybody that knows me and Henry — what more could you want?
Not a lot! We’re deprived of New Orleans sounds up here, so you and Henry are good enough!
[Laughs] Yeah! You’re right!
You’ve worked with a lot of young musicians, many of whom really look up to you. Do you give them advice?
I’m trying to do the best I can to let everyone know how I feel about ’em…
You’ve played with the best of the best. You were a part of The Last Waltz. Is there anyone else on your bucket list to jam with?
I think everyone who’s worth playing with, you’re gonna play with. I’m doing what I do and they do what they do, and that’s a blessing.
Speaking of blessings, you are blessed to live in New Orleans, where some of the best food in the country can be found. Do you travel with your own hot sauce?
I loooove all hot sauces, but I like Mike’s the best…he’s a blessing and he’s down the road from me [laughs]. [Mac’s manager chimes in, saying that Mike Fritscher is a neighbor who grows his own peppers and hot sauce but only distributes it to friends.] Whatever floats your boat and whatever floats you.
Anything you want to tell New Yorkers heading to your show this week?
It’s the real deal.