Old School Heart
Dr John & The Nite Trippers join Aaron Neville at the Riverside Theatre this Saturday, April 26. BOB GORDON reports.
Dr John was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2011, but he has always been a living monument unto music and his hometown of New Orleans.
Since the ‘50s, Dr John, AKA Mac Rebennack Jnr, has been a musical giant as a vocalist, musician (he was a crack guitarist until a gunshot wound to his hand saw him switch to piano in the early ‘60s), composer and producer, working with the likes of Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Harry Nilsson, Canned Heat, Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker, Marianne Faithfull, Harry Connick Jnr, Taj Mahal, Paul Weller, Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson and oh, so many more.
His own hit albums, Gris Gris (1968) and Gumbo (1972) opened up different aspects of New Orleans music to the wider world and still stand as classics.
And he continues, marching forward with a nod to the past.
“I’m doin’ wonder-fuel,” Dr John says in his New Orleans drawl. “I’m in Columbus, Ohio, right now. I’ve actually just been finishing up a recording we just did of a Louis Armstrong record. I think it’s just comin’ along great.”
What began as a series of tribute shows to the trumpet great has now turned into an album due for release later this year. It was prompted by a visit from Satchmo to Dr John in a dream.
“Yes that’s right. I had met Louis Armstrong when he was managed by Joe Glaser at Associated Booking,” he says of the mob-affiliated businessman who also managed Billie Holiday. “I’d never had him come to me in a dream before and he says, ‘do a record of my stuff, your way’. I thought, ‘wow, it’s official’.
“We got some bad trumpet players,” he says, meaning the word in its best and coolest sense. “And some other killer musicians too. “We’re really doing some different manoeuvres with Louis’ stuff.”
For this Australian tour, Dr John us touring with Aaron Neville, a long-time associate and friend.
“Well Aaron’s been my partner for a long time,” he says. “And his brother Charles, who’s been playing with him for years, is my partner too. But you know, all of the Neville Brothers have been partners of mine for a looong time.”
Dr John’s tour schedule is made up of many headline dates combined with festival appearances. Either kind of show is fine by him; it all comes down to the music.
“I write up a setlist and that’s what I do for every gig,” he says, simply. “They’re all different setlists and that’s what makes the gigs interesting for me. And interesting for the band.”
With songs going back some 60 years, it seems possible that setlist composition could be hard work with so much material to choose from. Not so…
“I think it’s just important to play what you feel,” Dr John says. “That’s the most important thing I feel like you gotta do.”
His last album was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and has been hailed as being as impacting as much of his classic work.
“That’s a blessing too, you know?” Dr John enthuses. “Dan was cool. He’s like old school stuff, you know? I like that. Anybody that’s old school is in my heart.”
Do you need an old soul in order to create music?
“Yeah, I believe that. If you ain’t got that, you’re shorter than life.”
Though he is walking history, Dr John has never forgotten any of his mentors, nor the influence of New Orleans on his life and music.
“You know, I had great guitar teachers when I first started out. I did produce Professor Longhair’s sessions and a lot of other people. Those sessions that I did for him are very special to me,” he says of paying the favour back to his musical father figure. “The ones I worked on for Wardell Quezergue (AKA The Creole Beethoven) were special for me too, being a Big Chief and all of that. I’ve produced music for Mardi Gras which has happened for many years in New Orleans. Those are important things to me.”
New Orleans, of course, continues to rebuild since Hurricane Katrina decimated it in 2005. It’s never lost its soul.
“People here are in pretty good sprits,” Dr John says. “You can’t suffer that much, in the mess of all of that, without suffering some consequences. The music in New Orleans is as strong as ever.”
As for his plans this year beyond the Louis Armstrong album release, it sounds like business as usual, a pleasure as ever.
“Listen, all we know, and I feel good about this, is that we’re gonna keep the gigs flouncin’ and everything bouncin’ and keep rollin’ with the music.
“It’s been my pleasure-and-a-half,” he signs off. “Have a pleasant day.”