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MSN Music News

Dr. John in Brooklyn: Bringing Gumbo to the Apple

A New Orleans legend surveys his hometown's sonic legacy

Born Mac Rebennack in New Orleans' Third Ward in 1940, Dr. John is not yet ready to go marching in. But he's been due for canonization since he finally gave up heroin in 1989. A self-supporting junkie musician at age 16, he's based his long and varied career out of Los Angeles and New York as well as New Orleans. But through rock moves and studio gigs, cocktail piano and American-songbook covers, New Orleans has always been his telltale heart. Dr. John is a white man who knows very well that his city's musical tradition is fundamentally black. He has always worked in mixed-race situations. But his skills as an organizer and a hustler have made him, as his 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio put it, "an unofficial spokesman and ambassador for the city and its musical history" as well as the ranking inheritor of the great N.O. piano tradition that goes back to his mentor Professor Longhair.

So it made perfect sense when BAM--the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York's most innovative and prestigious performing arts venue--honored Dr. John with a three-week "residency" comprising nine shows in 17 nights: "A Louis Armstrong Tribute" March 29-31, "Locked Down" April 5-7, "Funky but It's Nu Awlins" April 12-14. I attended Saturday, March 31, then Friday, April 6, then Thursday, April 12. But enjoyable though the first two nights were, they aimed higher than they could possibly have gone and ended up feeling like failures. The Nu Awlins tribute, on the other hand, was magnificent even though the BAM honoree took the lead vocal on precisely two of 20 songs. Wisely and also shrewdly, Dr. John made himself a conduit of the tradition rather than its figurehead. In so doing, he transformed it - not permanently; just for the night, because that tradition is a living thing that will change many times again.

The biggest problem with the Louis Armstrong night was Louis Armstrong, who towered over the stalwartly loose-limbed proceedings for anyone who could recall the warmth, clarity and time-shifting swing of his horn. Only one of the five trumpeters who tag-teamed the titan's parts dared replicate any portion of his musical game: namely, his high notes, which the Cuban-born virtuoso Arturo Sandoval matched with masterly technique and limited significance. Roy Hargrove's fluttery flugelhorn obbligatos were especially disappointing, and while showboating dancer James Andrews and genial cheerleader Kermit Ruffins were both great fun - which was also a crucial part of Pops' game - neither (especially the mute-mad Andrews) plays even in Sandoval's or Hargrove's league. Of course there were high points: to name just two, a dirgey midconcert "Saints" carried unflappably by blues diva René Marie, and an all-hands-on-deck "Saints" finale of irrepressible bonhomie. Nor was there any denying the apparently incongruous rapping of Telmary Diaz - a woman, believe it or not, and from Havana to boot. But the concept always seemed half-baked. I wasn't surprised to learn later that Dr. John plans an album of Armstrong songs.

After all, with Nonesuch Records' David Bither a prime mover, the Locked Down evening suggested that the entire residency was at root the toniest album promotion in biz history. Dr. John records tirelessly, but at a boutique level long on jazzy revivals and live discs. In contrast, Locked Down, which debuted at 33 in Billboard just last week, is his first serious crack at the mass market since the '70s. Produced and co-written by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, now vying to overtake Jack White and Jim James as an Americana conservator, its stolid beats, big guitars and sententious sentiments make it the most rockist album of Dr. John's career. Slightly stolid itself, Nonesuch is nonetheless a scrupulously quality-conscious label, the jewel of the majors. But that doesn't mean it eschews hype. And as hype, the residency benefited Nonesuch's equally honorable Auerbach, now hitched to his own personal neglected genius, as well as Dr. John.

Curious how the songs would stick, I spun Locked Down half a dozen times before the show. But although Dr. John performed every one--meaning sang them in his scocious croak, which has somehow gained heft--I recognized barely half, including a defrosted turkey about God's goodness. True, in good album-promoting fashion they all made more sense back home. But every BAM highlight was a catalogue classic: "Jump Sturdy," "Mama Roux," a spooky, deep-grooved "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" and a long solo "Such a Night" in which Dr. John's most emotionally detailed piano of the stand helped convince you that he wasn't just singing his greatest pop song but remembering every fraught detail of his sweet confusion under the moonlight--and all its painful aftermaths, too.

The great hopes I'd cherished for New Orleans night were temporarily derailed when April 12 turned out to be the night BAM chose to celebrate its 150th anniversary, with board members salting the orchestra, a spry two-minute video, and four lame five-minute speeches, the creepiest by a Morgan Chase moneybags who was jeered and justly so. Dismay descended. Only then, at around 8:30, Dr. John came on, not from the wings but leading a callithumpian parade smack down the center aisle, with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band making a ruckus and several beaded women we'd never see again frolicking past the assembled suits. Instantly the night was transformed by the spirit of New Orleans.

Anticipating a meld of the N.O. classics on Dr. John's seminal 1972 Gumbo and the hoodoo originals that lifted the Locked Down show, I got something else entirely. The only Dr. John compositions were his sole major hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time," and Locked Down's best and most atypical track, the braggadocious "Big Shot"; the only Gumbo songs were the dope-fiend anthem "Junko Partner" and a joyous ensemble finale of the Professor Longhair warhorse "Big Chief." But the New Orleans songbook is deep, and anyway, songs aren't the music's essence. Its essence is what Dr. John calls fonk, and in this matter his regular drummer Raymond Weber, who sounded out of place on Armstrong night and gave way to an Auerbach henchman for "Locked Down," was as crucial a force as his pianist boss's swooping and banging, comping and embellishing, dipsying and doodling, rocking and rolling. Quite often Weber played straight. But at crucial moments - for instance, behind trumpeter Nicholas Payton's medium-literal reading of an obscure Smokey Johnson standard called "It Ain't My Fault" that's shaped remarkably like "Saints"--he went all Zigaboo on our patooties, co-soloing with as much freedom as Payton himself.

Between Dirty Dozen opening and closing, the concert was essentially a series of solo turns: saxophonist Donald Harrison, soul diva Tami Lynn, vocalist-organist Ivan Neville, trumpeter Payton, pianist-vocalist Davell Crawford and ingenue-turned-institution Irma Thomas. Only Neville, who as Aaron Neville's oldest boychild has always gotten more respect than the healthy modicum he deserves, was less than remarkable. That includes the somewhat overrated Thomas, who came out on a cane after knee replacement surgery and claimed her throne with palpable self-assurance and heart. For that matter, it was just fine to hear Aaron's "Hercules" and the Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby." Boychild Ivan, now 51, does know how to pitch in.

That said, the other favored boychild present--Harrison, an accomplished bebop saxophonist whose father headed several Mardi Gras Indian tribes--was a continuing presence who made the show's deepest and most generous transformations happen. He sang as well as played--an "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" that stood as a challenge to any jazz purist who thought he was slumming. And when he played, he applied his jazz chops to envelope-pushing R&B and took his "Big Chief" bow on tambourine. Other soloists also stretched the mold: Payton dispatching "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" without singing a word; the black-clad Lynn, witchy and bereted and gorgeous at 70, teasing the mic like the young Al Green; Crawford turning the wicked "Junko Partner" into a gospel song. That almost nothing we heard was expected just seemed to make it more indubitably Nu Awlins. The whole upliftingly unnostalgic night left me feeling that among the time-shifts Louis Armstrong set in motion was a groove that now has more room for overt innovation than the harmonic improvisation Armstrong also set in motion.

Along with Lou Reed, who also had a thing for heroin, Mac Rebennack was the only old-school hipster to emerge from '60s rock. He's cool, distanced, controlling, unknowable, obscure--hardly a natural for the sententious sentiments of Locked Down. But when Rebennack invented Dr. John the Night Tripper long ago, the young reprobate found that vodun mumbo-jumbo suited his psyche and worldview perfectly, providing a framework in which he could comfortably embrace one of America's warmest and most up-close musical idioms. Barely opening his mouth, just anchoring a road band and deploying a few of his talented admirers, he made all of that come alive at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Let us pray that even the moneybags from Morgan Chase felt, as Rebennack's old partner Jessie Hill once put it, a disturbance in his mind.

MSN Music, April 17, 2012