When music has been a central part of your life for more than half a century, it’s probably fair to say you’ll continue playing until the day you physically can’t. This is clearly the case for Malcolm John Rebennack, better known to his friends as “Mac”, better known to the world as DR. JOHN, The Night Tripper. Born in 1940, Dr. John’s mortality is becoming more apparent by the year but it is also apparent that there’s a driving force deep within that transcends any physical limitations, allowing him to perform for a set which lasts well over an hour and a half.
Perhaps the voodoo skull atop his grand piano serves more than an aesthetic purpose, but most probably this seemingly impossible feat is down to the fact that, when your life has revolved so intrinsically around music, music becomes the thing that keeps you alive. Born in New Orleans’ incredibly culturally significant Third Ward, Mac was exposed to a whole range of sounds from a very young age in his father’s record store. By the beginning of his teenage years he was working with Professor Longhair and remained active as a session musician throughout the late fifties and into the sixties.
However it wasn’t until his 1968 Gris-Gris album that the legendary Dr. John persona was born. Merging blues, funk, jazz and soul influences with native Creole, boogie woogie and zydeco sounds, alongside an aesthetic derived from Louisiana voodoo, Mardi Gras and travelling medicine shows, Mac created the perfect emblem for New Orleans’ rich cultural heritage and captured the world’s imagination in the process.
From the very first piano lick of his performance, it becomes clear why this man has been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and has picked up no less than six Grammys in his time. Playing through the hits of Dr. John’s Gumbo, he gives the grand piano a real workout and, although his voice is initially weak, it soon regains force as he ups the showmanship in Tipitina.
However, it isn’t until the maestro revisits his seminal album, in an I Walk On Guilded Splinters/Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya medley, that his band The Nightrippers come into their own. As Sarah Morrow’s trombone soars over an entrancing ritual beat, Rhoda Scott’s subtle organ murmurs under the medicine man’s mesmeric ceremony. However, instead of merely trying to recreate the hazy energy of the recordings, the incredibly tight band take the voodoo sounds into faster-paced territory, punctuated by the most frenetic of drum solos courtesy of Herlin Riley.
Dr. John switches to his Nord synth and the Bayou funk soon starts oozing out as he takes on the album he worked on with The Meters, In The Right Place – allowing Donald Ramsey to come to the fore with the headiest of slap bass sensibilities. The Nightrippers then play through Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch; Dr. John’s tribute to another legendary musician from the Third Ward, Louis Armstrong. It was a given that the audience would be treated to the uplifting What A Wonderful World but the positivity is counterbalanced by the markedly melancholic Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.
After a brief stint on the guitar, which seems to be as stabilising as his walking sticks, the doctor moves back to the grand piano to finish a brilliant performance doing what he does best – pushing the keys to their limits. Drawing deep into his reserves, The Night Tripper’s incredible performance climaxes with the explosive Mess Around. A sense of awe and disbelief permeates the standing ovation; perhaps he is a voodoo doctor after all…