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.