MAHAIWE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
Dr. John and the Lower 911
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – Dr. John was smart – or lucky. When he created his sound, his persona, and his approach back about 40 years ago, he did it in such a way as to make it almost age-proof and timeless in every way.
He chose music that never goes out of style (it already having proven that by being rooted in decades-old styles, most of it from his hometown of New Orleans); music that appeals to a wide range of ages and demographics; a voice that would only ripen and get burnished with age like a fine single malt; and a stage show that for the most part relies solely on straightforward musicianship.
Sure, there were a few more pyrotechnics back when he was Dr. John Creaux, the Night Tripper, in full voodoo regalia, back in the late-1960s and early-1970s. But by the time he hit big with “Right Place, Wrong Time” in 1973, he had already jettisoned a fair amount of that hoodoo and let the funk speak for itself.
Besides, as can be seen from the photos accompanying this review of his concert at the Mahaiwe on Saturday night, Dr. John still brings with him a trunkful of curiosities, including shrunken skulls that he neatly lays out on his keyboards, as well as feathers, a necklace of bones, and other icons for this icon of American music.
If his voice has lost a slight bit of color, it’s lost none of its elastic bark, and it still bites whether he’s chopping off syncopated phrases on standards such as Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive,” Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” or his own “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
And man can he still play piano. Fortunately, he brought with him his new, stripped-down, rhythm-heavy outfit, the Lower 911. Although each given his moment in the spotlight, bassist David Barard, guitarist John Fohl, and drummer Shannon Powell mostly knew how to keep out of Dr. John’s way, filling in the spaces but allowing the rollicking sound of his New Orleans barrelhouse piano-playing to take front and center. Trombonist Sarah Morrow was used for spice and contrast and jazz, and the sum total effect was that of a tightly wound funky clock supporting the Doctor, who turned around and played the organ occasionally and even meandered over to stage right to play one number on his original instrument, the electric guitar.
While the show might have been paced a little better – there were too many peaks and valleys, or not enough of them, depending on your point of view, and perhaps “Right Place, Wrong Time” may have been better served by saving it for the end (and “Goodnight Irene” for the encore), and why the hell doesn’t he include “Such a Night” in his concerts anymore? – this is minor quibbling. Dr. John put on a great-sounding show, and enjoying it in the comfortable confines of the Mahaiwe was a great pleasure for all, for sure.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic and the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet and The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music.