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Wrong place, right time: Dr. John vs the Moulin Rouge

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There's always been something incongruous about Dr. John. In the 1950s he was one of the few white musicians to play an integral part in the explosive New Orleans rhythm-and-blues recording scene. Under his real name, Mac Rebennack, he played piano and guitar on sessions by such greats as Dave Dixon, Huey Smith and the Clowns, and Professor Longhair. No doubt he developed his laidback hipster personality during this time, but it never obscured the fact that he was a serious-minded, articulate student of the entire Louisiana musical tradition, from backwoods blues to the jazzy R & B many favored during the late 50s.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he crossed over into the colorful, often silly world of psychedelia with his Dr. John the Night Tripper persona. The legendary LP Gris-Gris featured Dr. John's surrealistic portrait on the cover, eyes aglow and face illuminated by what appeared to be a cauldron. The name Dr. John was taken from a 19th-century New Orleans voodoo priest who was the mentor, and later the arch rival, of the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau; and the Night Tripper's songs were rife with darkly colorful imagery of witchcraft and bayou mystery.

Yet Dr. John's music never strayed far from the no-nonsense rhythm and blues of his roots. "Iko Iko," his best-remembered song from the early 70s, is based on a Mardi Gras chant of some antiquity. It was first recorded, as "Jockamo," by Sugar Boy Crawford in the early 50s, and contains verses sung in the language of the Mardi Gras Indians, fraternal organizations that spoke a patois combining several Native American and African dialects as well as snippets of French and Spanish. ("Iko" is roughly translated as "I Go"; "Jockamo" means "Jester.")

Likewise, the song "Gris-Gris," the Night Tripper anthem, lays surrealistic lyrics over a hard-driving piano rhythm line featuring a complex interplay between the right and left hands that makes clear the influence of Professor Longhair. The tune's refrain--"walk on golden splinters"--was adapted, characteristically, by Dr. John from the old-time Louisiana minstrel shows.

Dr. John's love of New Orleans music, and the heritages behind it, is evident offstage as well as on. In New Orleans he was influential in organizing a union to assist indigent musicians; he also used his influence to secure a charter--Dr. John's Temple of Gris-Gris--for the reverend mothers of the local spiritualist churches so that they could continue to practice their healing rituals without being harassed by the police. His music and conversation both reflect his commitment to carrying on one of our richest cultural heritages.

Neither the image of Dr. John the Night Tripper, decked out in feathers and Mardi Gras beads and croaking out gris-gris chants, nor the more current image of the serious-minded musician would seem appropriate to the atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge, in the Fairmont Hotel.

One could hardly imagine a more incongruous setting for Dr. John, given the room's dress code, the inflated drink prices, the jewel-bedecked audience, and the slick house orchestra led by ace Chicago trombonist Bill Porter. One feared that Dr. John's churning funk would violate the smug serenity of the Moulin Rouge, as if a hard-eyed, cigar-chomping old root doctor from the bayous had crashed a turn-of-the-century New Orleans octoroon ball.

As soon as he appeared, Dr. John alleviated any misgivings about such a culture clash. With a playful panache characteristic of New Orleans entertainers he came onstage clad in a shiny vintage blue-green tuxedo with a ruffled shirt, sporting a tall felt top hat. He looked like a voodoo leprechaun. The band was already chugging along in the "Iko Iko" ham-bone rhythm by the time he got there, and with a growled "Jockamo fee-na-nay" incantation, the Doctor was in.

Perhaps feeling that he'd most easily reach this house with his better-known songs, during the early part of his show Dr. John concentrated on his standards. After "Iko Iko" came "Right Place, Wrong Time." This featured a full-bodied attack by the orchestra, playing charts written by Dr. John himself, augmented by a well-crafted, sophisticated solo by guitarist Archie Williams. Over it all Dr. John fired off his loping, staccato piano patterns and barked out the lyrics in his hoarse moan. It's unlikely that the hard-bitten, hip irony of the words ("I was in the right vein / Must've used the wrong arm") hit home with much of the audience, but the song was nonetheless successful.

No Dr. John performance would be complete without a tribute to his New Orleans R & B roots. Although Charles Brown is best known as the godfather of the slick southern California blues crooners, he also cut some sides in New Orleans in the 50s on which the young Mac Rebennack was present. At the Moulin Rouge Dr. John featured a reworking of Brown's standard "Black Night" that began in a bluesier vein than Brown's mellow original but soon smoothed out under the easy-rolling melodiousness of the horn arrangements and Dr. John's sophisticated piano comping.

More to the point was Professor Longhair's "Tipitina." It's a prototype of New Orleans R & B, rhythmically complex and lyrically imaginative. Dr. John, one of the late Professor's most devoted pupils, plays "Tipitina" with a combination of respect and joyful abandon. He doesn't quite have Fess's magical left hand (nor does any other R & B pianist living), but he rolls off the tune's intricate, juxtaposed rhythmic subtleties with deceptive ease, buttressed by the in-the-pocket tightness of his regular touring rhythm section: guitarist Williams, drummer Richard Crooks, and bassist Wilbur Bascomb. Notable throughout the evening was house saxophonist Sonny Seals, whose solos fused bop sophistication with screaming R & B exuberance in a way that brought respectful nods and delighted smiles from the orchestra as well as from Dr. John.

One wishes that Maria Muldaur, also featured that evening at the Moulin Rouge, could be as securely rooted in her music as Dr. John. She appears to have been searching for an identity ever since the 60s, when she split from husband Geoff Muldaur and left the merry band of musical pranksters who gravitated around the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. (This influential but dimly remembered hippie string band eventually dissolved into a strange mist of musical lethargy and religious cultism.) Since she left the Jug Band, Muldaur has resurfaced as a sexy singer of novelty pop songs ("Midnight at the Oasis"), as a plump Marin County earth-mother hipstress singing backup for Jerry Garcia, and as a stalwart born-again Christian pop musician. In her latest incarnation she appears to be an aspiring Vegas showwoman. Unfortunately she wears this persona as uncomfortably as she has all the others.

Muldaur, glitzed out in a shimmering gown, started preening and mugging in her walk to the front of the room, long before she hit the stage. (Dr. John was prompted to growl, "Ah, shake it, don't break it!") She opened with a showy version of "Let the Good Times Roll" and then charged into "I'm a Woman"--not the Koko Taylor blues anthem but the song that's been Muldaur's signature tune since her Jug Band days. Unlike much of her current material, "I'm a Woman" has a rollicking, ribald fire that lends itself well to Muldaur's flamboyant stage presence; it was one of her most successful efforts of the evening.

Muldaur insisted, however, on attempting material for which she's sadly unsuited. Probably because she was sharing the bill with Dr. John, she took on R & B classics like Percy Mayfield's lovely "Please Send Me Someone to Love"; the results were utterly unsuccessful. Mayfield's is one of the most tender, poetic songs in all of rhythm and blues, a prayer for world peace (and not a cry of romantic self-pity, as Muldaur hinted in her introduction) that's best delivered in a soulful croon. Muldaur contorted, screamed, stomped, and strangled the gentle classic to death, jumping and staggering theatrically across the stage even during a churchy guitar solo by Williams in which he tried valiantly to rescue the song from Muldaur's emotional onslaught. A good gospel singer might have gotten away with firing up the emotional jets and belting out Mayfield's tune; in Muldaur's hands, it was only embarrassing.

Fortunately the good Doctor, who played throughout Muldaur's set, was on hand to help rescue her. His "Such a Night" brightened the middle of her set: one of Dr. John's most mainstream pop stylings, it's much more appropriate to Muldaur's style than such soul ballads as "Please Send Me Someone to Love." He enhanced the song with a lush, Gershwin-like intro incorporating subtle influences ranging from traditional New Orleans jazz to bebop. His solo featured a loping left-hand pattern overlaid with scurrying treble runs; these were both bluesy and laced with sophisticated pop-jazz harmonic ideas. He also joined her in "Baby, It's Cold Outside," based on the Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet version; here he combined whimsy and a jazzy sophistication with a refreshing low-key wit.

Despite her bathetic posturings, Muldaur offered some glimpses of hope at the Moulin Rouge that she might yet find her musical niche. Her playful, red-hot-mama delivery of "Don't You Feel My Leg," the jug-band ribaldry of Fats Waller's "There'll Be the Devil to Pay," and the moments of gritty soulfulness that she achieved during her reading of "There Has Got to Be a Better World Somewhere"--a Dr. John song popularized by B.B. King--all pointed to the fact that she is an entertainer of considerable talent, as long as she reins in her excesses and allows her material to speak for itself.

Dr. John has never done anything else. Even at his most flamboyant he has never allowed his ego or his theatricality to get in the way of the music's eloquence. He's known for his maxim "Musick Equals Majick"; and in the great New Orleans tradition, the celebratory energy of his playing and his poetic lyrics are healing. At the Moulin Rouge he proved that there's plenty of magic left: he transformed a stuffy, self-important room into something very close to a vintage Louisiana house party. Few others could have pulled off a work of sorcery like that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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