Monday night’s concert at the Lobero Theatre featured a combination made in R&B heaven — Dr. John fronting a five-piece band that included trombonist Sarah Morrow, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, easily the most celebrated traditional gospel group in the world. The programming of the performances was simple and highly effective — one long set with Dr. John getting things going, the Blind Boys coming out and raising the roof, another couple of long, jazzy numbers, and a unified finale. The 100 or so minutes passed like a flash as the audience jumped, clapped, and danced along to the funky backbeats laid down by the Lower 911 Band.
Dr. John, who has a great new album out right now called Locked Down (produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) is a New Orleans legend. He emerged dressed in a purple suit, white hat, and sunglasses and proceeded to perch on a piano bench that was set between a grand piano and an old-school electric organ. At times he played both instruments at once, left hand on the piano and right on the organ, straddling the bench and facing out towards the audience, but for most of the night he concentrated on one or the other. The highlights came fast and thick, with such classics as “Walk on Gilded Splinters” and “Right Place, Wrong Time” front loaded in the set.
The Blind Boys entered to general uproar and immediately launched into an ebullient and expressive version of the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready.” As befits the shape-shifting persona of the “Night Tripper,” Dr. John alternately played with and around the most familiar gospel tunes, transforming “If I Had a Hammer” into a rowdy funk workout, and underpinning “Amazing Grace” with the foreboding chord progressions from “House of the Rising Sun.” Audience members (and especially female audience members) were stunned by the way trombonist Sarah Morrow tossed off solo after solo while dancing to the edge of the stage in extremely high heels. Throughout the night, Dr. John’s inimitable voice cut the gumbo, making a vivid counterpoint to the gritty harmonies of the Blind Boys. Towards the end, as he swung powerfully into the joyous polyrhythms of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” one could detect a certain sneaky smile creeping across the maestro’s otherwise poker face. This is one big chief who is clearly having big fun on a remarkably entertaining and well-imagined tour.