Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint – three of the piano-player greats who have emerged from New Orleans, that laboratory of musical invention, the city where every stream of American music has converged and shape-shifted. None have transmogrified the music to the same degree as a fourth pianist, Mac Rebennack who reinvented himself as Dr John, fusing voodoo psychedelia with New Orleans R&B, gospel and funk.  Last Monday he materialised at the Liverpool Philharmonic, still cooking up a righteous gumbo at 75 years.

A couple of evenings earlier we had watched the last episode of Songs of the South, Reginald D Hunter’s excellent BBC2 series about the music of the American South, in which Dr John appeared, averring that ‘it ain’t New Orleans if it ain’t got that Latin tinge’.  Meaning: the city’s spicy musical stew reflects its connections with the Caribbean – Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Haiti, source of voodoo culture and mysticism that imbued his 1968 début album Gris Gris with an atmosphere so occult, mysterious and eerie that it became a staple of stoned student seances. At such ceremonies, the needle would be dropped repeatedly on the trance-like ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ that sounded as if it had been recorded at a post-midnight ceremony in some secluded bayou swamp.

Dr John

Arriving at the concert I had no expectation of hearing that iconic number – I thought it might be unreproducible on stage, that maybe the pianist had left it behind in the swirling mists of the past; and, anyway, his latest album is a tribute to Louis Armstrong so perhaps the set list would reflect that fact. However, half-way into a concert that does feature a few songs off the Satchmo tribute but is primarily an energising greatest hits retrospective, he pulls out a medley of ‘Gilded Splinters’ and ‘Gris Gris YaYa’ as spooky and psychedelicized as the original.

Sarah Morrow
Sarah Morrow, trombone

The effect is achieved with a new incarnation of his backing band The Nite-Trippers that numbers just four musicians. They are Bobby Floyd Rhoda Scott on Hammond organ, Dwight Bailey on bass, Shannon Powell on drums, and Sarah Morrow on trombone who also acts as musical director.  Dr John appeared a rather frail figure as he made his way across the stage, carefully steadying himself with a cane.  But, once seated at the piano, he launched into an energetic set that rippled with the bluesy rhythms and formidable boogie riffs of old.

Dr John piano
Dr John at the piano

The sound mix took some getting used to at first – as usual, the Phil can’t get it right, with the drums drowning out Dr John’s piano and vocals.  But gradually the ears attuned and we settled in to enjoy a great evening.  Dr John had been preceded on stage by the band members who performed ‘The Dr Iz In’ as an overture, with trombonist Sarah Morrow acting as emcee, whipping up the crowd with the call, ‘Do you need a doctor?’ The pianist appointed Morrow his musical director in 2013 after sacking all the previous Night-Trippers.  This apparently didn’t go down well with New Orleans regulars who regarded Morrow, hailing from Ohio, as an interloper who didn’t understand the city’s music. On the strength of this evening’s show that opinion can be disputed; she was firing on all cylinders – on trombone, vocals, and general audience arousal duties.

The Doctor and the band kicked off with a spirited cover of the New Orleans anthem ‘Iko Iko’, beginning a musical journey through his back catalogue that included much loved New Orleans standards – highlights from his own 1972 tribute to the music he had grown up with in the 1940s and 1950s – such as ‘Tipitina’ and ‘Mess Around’, as well as ‘Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)’.  Along with his classic ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, this segment of the show reflected how Mac Rebennack has always tried, as he expressed it in his autobiography, ‘to keep a lot of the little changes that were characteristic of New Orleans, while working my own funknology on piano and guitar.’

Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)

After ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, the Doctor stepped gingerly away from the piano stool to where a stage-hand helped him strap on a guitar. There was nothing shaky about the rendition of ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ that followed, a no-prisoners, Hendrix-style blues blast.

Dr John on guitar
Dr John on guitar

I must admit that before seeing this I didn’t know that Dr John played guitar. How much I know! It turns out that he began his music career as a guitarist, only switching to piano after he had a finger shot off (and sewed back on) after he intervened in a life-threatening altercation between the singer in his band and a bad guy who was pistol-whipping him.

Let the Good Times Roll: live, with Dr John on guitar

‘Let the Good Times Roll’ rounded off a brilliant segment of the show, peppered with r’n’b numbers off the Gumbo album, plus that psychedelic good-luck charm off Gris-Gris, ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’.

‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ at Lugano Jazz in 2012 with Sarah Morrow on trombone

Put gris-gris on your doorstep
Soon you’ll be in the gutter
Melt your heart like butter
A-a-and I can make you stutter

Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters
Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters

‘Til I Burn Up ,’Til I Burn Up, ‘Til I Burn Up ,’Til I Burn Up

Come Get It, Get It, Come, Come
Walk on gilded splinters

‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ at  the 2013 Official Americana Awards with a bigger, rock-inflected band

The other main theme of the night was Satchmo, with several tunes from Dr John’s tribute to Louis Armstrong, Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit of Satch.  We got ‘St. James Infirmary’, ‘You Rascal You’, ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘That’s My Home’.  If you have reservations (as I do) about ‘Wonderful World’, fear not – the Doctor’s totally sugar-free version is like no other, pure New Orleans funk, with churchy Hammond organ, scratchy vocal and bluesy piano. It’s a measure of how much he says he ‘enjoys screwing with a good song.’ I liked Dr John’s vocal on ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ a lot better than the version on the album, where it’s sung by Anthony Hamilton in a smooth crooner style.

The concert ended on a real high note, with ‘Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)’, ‘Such a Night’ and ‘Mess Around’ in swift succession.  By the end everyone was on their feet, stamping and clapping and calling for more.

Dr John and The Nite Trippers: ‘Such A Night’, Madrid, June 2014

Dr John and the Nite Trippers: Paris, May 2014 (30 minute segment)

Setlist

  • The Dr Iz In
  • Iko Iko
  • Let’s Make a Better World
  • Tipitina
  • St. James Infirmary
  • Love For Sale
  • Walk on Gilded Splinters/Gris Gris YaYa
  • Right Place, Wrong Time
  • Let the Good Times Roll
  • What a Wonderful World
  • You Rascal You
  • That’s My Home
  • Goodnight, Irene
  • Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
  • Big Bass Drum (On A Mardi Gras Day)
  • Croker Courtbullion
  • Such a Night
  • Mess Around
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11 thoughts on “Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!

  1. A fantastic night indeed. I’m not so familiar with his back catalogue but it was a pure New Orleans show. Back in the 20’s Jelly Roll Morton said that New Orleans jazz had to have “that Latin tinge” and although his music was obviously different from what we heard last night there’s a clear line of continuity. In fact Dr John’s piano playing reminded me of Sammy Price. His choice of Satchmo songs seems odd – only one of them a classic – but as you say, it hardly matters, as he puts his own stamp on everything.

    1. Cheers, Pete – sorry I missed you there! His Satchmo album is fine, but I prefer Allen Toussaint’s strict jazz album, Bright Mississippi, that has Toussaint on piano accompanied by such folk as Don Byron, Nicholas Payton and Joshua Redman in spare but beautiful settings of jazz standards by Louis Armstrong as well as Django Reinhardt,Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Lovely Southern feel.

      1. Yes, got that one. Wan’t sure what to expect from it but really like it. very much on the New Orleans tradition.

  2. This brings back memories of the 1960s. I was introduced to the music of Dr John by Deirdre Gordon (Liverpool Art College) but over the years I decided to ration my listening to his music as I found that if I sat around with friends listening to his music I was tempted to over indulge with the substances with which Dr John was rumoured to over indulge. My favourite track on The Night Tripper was Croker Courtbullion

    1. Thanks, Harvey. I have a very strong memory of hearing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew for the first time at your place on Bentley Road and being blown away by it. Could I have heard Gris-Gris there too? (The trick was not to inhale)

  3. Yes Gerry he most certainly did channel some voodoo spirits from beyond the firmament in that debut album. It also infuriated his managers that he’d taken that step and created Dr. John. There was no going back now.
    I bought the album when it came out and was mesmerized by its sense of space and the “vocals” (complete with whisperings, fadings, and the ‘church-ladies-gone-wrong-and-writhing-with-the-spirit’ feel). The way that the last note of the sax reedily hangs on the opening riff of the first song is pure magic. And the tribal percussion was perfect for my darkened room and candles that wavered to these sounds on my Marantz stereo. The Night Tripper was in my room!
    JumpSturdy was a pretty catchy tune as well on his debut LP.

    Several albums later I believe that his best piano playing is to be found on Dr. John Plays Mac Rebbenack (The Brightest Smile In Town). Really astonishing stuff at the height of his powers.

    He is a great presence as witnessed by some funny acting on the comedy series SCTV along side Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty and John Candy.

    When he’s not on the road, he lives on a lovely boat on Long Island.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this review, Gerry. I often dip into your blog but seldom comment. This time I was inspired to book to see Dr John tomorrow night in Brighton. Really stoked. My husband is a huge fan of his.

      1. Oh we did! Blew us away. And I didn’t catch any of the names either but that (female) trombonist was awesome.
        Great night out. We drove there from Dorset, so not a short trip, but so worth it.

  5. Must have been a different concert I went to. I saw Rhoda Scott on Hammond and Mac finished with Such a Night

    1. Thanks, Wal. I did think from I was seated that it was a woman on the Hammond! But I couldn’t make out the band members’ names when announced by Sarah Morrow, so I went with a listing on the web. So I thank you for your correction.

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