Dr. John. At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, August 18
Reviewed by Stanley Naftaly
As the drummer yelled, “It’s gonna get funky tonight!” from behind his huge, glittery kit, Mack Rebennack — a k a Dr. John, the Night Tripper, the witch doctor of R&B, and purveyor of voodoo music — shuffled onstage in perfect time with the music. The crowd was already on its feet at the Lobero last Friday evening, and the first song hadn’t even started. This was N’Orleans music in Santa Barbara, but it could have been Mussel Shoals, Chicago, or Detroit — anywhere where playing music is as natural as breathing, anywhere where it isn’t about costumes or histrionics. What we had before us was just an absolutely tight, funk-laden, blues-rock quartet led by the same gravel-voiced magician we’ve loved since he dropped into the midst of the psychedelic ’60s.
Dr. John’s backing trio was superb. David Barard is as strong and hard-edged an electric bassist as I’ve heard in years. John Fohl, with his stinging wah-wah sound, is the perfect guitarist for the doc, and drummer Herman Roscoe Ernest III used everything within reach to his advantage. He not only anchored and drove the band, but enriched its melodic content and served as its emcee at times.
The doctor advised, “Keep That Music Simple” while working out on the grand piano and Hammond B-3 organ simultaneously, and then paused to talk about the tragedy that befell New Orleans. He lamented, “New Orleans didn’t die a natural death, it was cold-blooded murder” and dedicated “Sweet Home, New Orleans,” with its refrain of, “Home sweet home, we goin’ to be there twice as strong,” to his town. Other highlights included “Accentuate The Positive,” from his latest CD, Mercernary, a tribute to Johnny Mercer; his greatest hit, “Right Place at the Wrong Time”; and, most wonderful of all, a dip into the voodoo pool with the comfortably eerie sounds of a slide whistle, bones, shells, and various shakers augmenting the band’s instrumentation.
During the encore, about 50 eager dancers swarmed the stage and the rest of the audience stomped and clapped where they stood. The whole evening was an exhilarating sermon on joy … Amen!