I had a deja vu sort of moment in K-State’s McCain Auditorium last Friday night. I was there to hear the Night Tripper, Dr. John—Mac Rebennack and his band and their touring partners The Blind Boys of Alabama. Like this week’s four-night residency in Nichols Theater by Five Actors from the London Stage, the Dr. John concert was one of the dates on the McCain series calendar to which I had most looked forward.
In most ways the ninety minute show lived up to expectations. Dr. John’s band—bass, drums, guitar, and trombonist Sarah Morrow hit the stage first and brought on the recording studio-dwelling author of “I Walk on Golden Splinters.” After parading in his blue leisure suit to the grand piano (decorated with a ballcap-wearing skull), Rebennack began to sing in that instantly recognizable voice the young will associate with Popeye’s Chicken jingles.
Those of us a little older, perhaps old enough to remember the singer’s late sixties and early seventies recordings, went to work trying to gauge the effect of the impersonation. “Dr. John” is a stage personality, replete with hoo-doo and other New Orleans references, and Rebennack (so the story goes) didn’t originally see himself as the fellow to play the part.
Well, there were some references, lyrical and musical, to magic and spookiness, during the sixteen songs performed—without an intermission—by the musical menage. But the music was, more than anything else, soul music.
New Orleans is the home of aesthetic conservatism, and this was a New Orleans dance band show from about ‘64 with references to zombies thrown in and a couple of on-stage appearances by four blind guys in matching suits who sang spirituals, often repetitive ones, sometimes using tunes we would not have associated with those lyrics.
Imagine “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.” That was one of the numbers the Blind Boys, an American musical institution for something like eighty years, performed for us. During their soulful take on “If I Had a Hammer”—no Trini Lopez jazziness here—one of the singers went for a walk down the front row of McCain seats, shaking hands as he went.
Probably the musical highlight of the Blind Boys’ performance, though, was “People Get Ready,” which opened their featured portion of the show. This is a potent song, their harmony was relatively tight, and each of the soloists got up to take his turn, as if they were saxophone players in a swing band.
That song came just after Dr. John led the band (which also accompanied the Blind Boys) through a decent version of his big hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” “Just need a little brain salad surgery./Got to cure this insecurity.” It hopped along nicely with Rebenneck playing both piano and organ as he sat between the two. His rhythmic piano playing reminded me of Count Basie—just a couple of touches here and there. It was interesting that Rebennack played one song on the guitar, his original instrument before a gun shot injured his hand, about fifty years ago.
Dr. John held the audience with his solos. But they liked Morrow’s muted trombone even more, and all of the musicians got substantial solos late, including soulful singing David Barard on his bass. Drummer Raymond Weber, atop of his kit, was an audience favorite. I liked John Fohl’s soaring lead guitar lines. The show’s happy, spooky, loose, improvisational, soul sound stopped at the preconceived time limit, allowing no encore.
As I left the theater, I was remembering the last time I saw a noted performer cross the audience seating during a song. It was Lionel Hampton. And this reminded me that I’ve gotten old. Lionel Hampton was for the Great Generation something like what Dr. John was for mine. Now my generation is providing the retrospective material. Right place. Long time.