With a name like Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr., it’s a funny thing that Dr. John didn’t stick with the original. Sure, “Dr. John” is a euphonious construction befitting a skinji-brimmed night tripper, but maybe Mac Rebennack would have done okay too. That’s the name he recorded under when he was a sideman back in the late ’50s, and he took the Dr. John moniker when he decided to take a few parts Professor Longhair, a few parts Jimi Hendrix, and a few parts Meters and turn the whole mess into a gonzo live extravaganza.
Dr. John has always seemed to me to be sort of the Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans music, a genial and crowd-pleasing performer who doesn’t value purity as much as whether something tastes good. (Of course there’s the objection that Dr. John is actually from the Big Easy, and Lagasse is a native son of Fall River (that’s pronounced “Fawl Rivuh!”), Massachusetts, but bear with me…) There’s a lot to be said for not being bound by tradition. If it weren’t for Emeril “BAM”ing it up daily on the Food Network, it’s doubtful that many people in this country would have any idea how to say etouffé, much less have an idea what goes into the dish. And if it weren’t for Mac Rebennack – ‘scuse me – Dr. John putting butts on dance floors with his blend of New Orleans juju, rock, funk, and psychedelic music, I doubt that many people in this country would have ever heard the sound of a funky New Orleans second line beat.
But of course, both Emeril and Dr. John come in for their share of criticism, too. Emeril’s food is good, and I hear his restaurant can really hit the spot, but he presents a cuisine that is more New Orleans TO THE MAXX!! than New Orleans. This is completely fine, but purists will naturally scoff. Dr. John, too, has had a number of outstanding hits, and his grab-bag approach can sound as fresh and satisfying now as it was in 1968. Moreover, he has at least one all-time classic record (1973′s In The Right Place) that it is every American’s patriotic duty to own and appreciate. Nonetheless, ever since about 1980, it seems like Dr. John has spent a lot of time underachieving, and has settled into a comfortable middle age.
Hyena Records (owned by legendary producer Joel Dorn) has just released a new archival live album by Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time, that was recorded live at Tipitina’s in New Orleans over Mardi Gras 1989. Despite the great promise of such a combination – The Night Tripper… New Orleans… Tipitina’s… Mardi Gras!! – the record manages to sum up everything that’s good, and everything that’s frustrating, about Dr. John in approximately equal measure. Both the good part and the frustrating part are related to Dr. John’s persona as the cool, detached voodoo master of the keys, the night tripper, the bemused and beguiled vendor of voodoo and master of mojo. As long as he sticks singing to his own material he does fine, but when he steps out into songs made famous by others, he tends to stumble.
A case in point is the song chosen to open the set: the classic “Junco Partner,” an old tune that is probably most closely associated with another great New Orleans pianist, the flawed, fascinating, and very mortal James Booker. The title, “junco partner” refers to a partner in crime, someone to shoot heroin with, and the song is sung from the point of view of a junkie getting high with his junco partner and fantasizing about “if I had a million dollars” and doing one last shot before dying. In Booker’s hands, “Junco Partner” is positively incandescent, a messy, impassioned, and doomed wake for the living. On his 1973 album aptly titled Junco Partner, Booker turns in a blazing version in his own seemingly six-handed piano style as he cries, laughs and growls verses that seem to come straight from the heart. The stanza about buying the land around the infamous Angola prison and growing “a nice wheat farm till 1992″ sounds as though it’s coming from someone who has spent plenty of time in that miserable place, and the last few lines of the song spill over with resignation and a sort of fatalistic comfort:
I want-a whiskey, whiskey, whiskey when I’m thirsty
And water, water, water, when I’m dry.
I want my lover, my lover, when I’m lonely,
And a little heroin, li’l heroin, just before I die, ‘fore I die,
And a little cocaine, li’l cocaine, baby on the side.
On the Junco Partner, version, Booker chops up the lines (pun!), at the end of the song, obsessively deconstructing words syllable by syllable until the song ends in an impressionistic storm of pain, need, and barely collected cool.
A song like “Junco Partner” really benefits from a hard sell, from a dirty mind, and it seems like Dr. John was too mellow for that by 1989. His avuncular good cheer works most of the time, as does his intrepid style-hopping. But on “Junco Partner,” this same diversity and easygoing geniality amounts to a limitation. Although his version includes a few more verses than Booker’s, it has none of the same intensity. Instead, the song becomes a laid-back New Orleans roll for which the lyrics are just decoration; a nursery rhyme whose meaning has become effaced through time and heavy use. Having not heard Dr. John’s album version of the same song from his third album, Dr. John’s Gumbo I can’t say whether this was an off night or just his way with the song, but no matter what the case, it starts the set off a little flat.
Dr. John fares much better with his own material. The version included here of “I Walk on Guilded [sic] Splinters” from his first album conjures the right crawling Bayou blues feel, and even sounds a little Zappa-esque at times. The same goes for the sinister “Black Widow,” which ably combines a New Orleans feel with a slicker Chicago sound and showcases some of the best piano playing of the night. The best cover of the set is a version of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” that injects some very welcome Ray-Charles vintage pathos into the mix. Elsewhere, the same breeziness that killed “Junco Partner” works perfectly on “Let The Good Times Roll” (also from Dr. John’s Gumbo), and he even does okay on the blues standard “Wang Dang Doodle.” However, here again Dr. John’s trademark style sabotages him, at least from my point of view. I’m used to grittier readings: Chicago fixture Koko Taylor has made this her signature song for decades now, and her throaty growl brings a lot more out of the song than does Dr. John’s easygoing bonhomie. It’s not bad, just not all that great. I admit that it’s terribly unfair to expect Dr. John to live up to other people’s reputations, but I have to be honest: he’s a hugely talented entertainer, and I wouldn’t mention any of this if I didn’t have the terrible suspicion that that on that night in 1989, Dr. John was phoning it in a little.
Overall, Right Place, Right Time sounds like a missed opportunity. All the ingredients are there: New Orleans, Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras, Dr. John, but much of the set is stuck in second gear. Bogged down by a decent but not great live recording and some seriously dated live-production sound decisions (like the glassy, thin bass-guitar sound), this offering mainly makes me miss the days when Dr. John didn’t always seem to be underachieving his considerable potential.