Mac Rebennack — aka Dr. John, the alligator-clad medicine man bandleader and ambassador of New Orleans music — makes a rare appearance during a season in which he typically reigns as king. On May 3, dozens of artists pay tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre at "The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music," including Gregg Allman, Tab Benoit, Terence Blanchard, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Boutte, Monk Boudreaux, Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Lucinda Williams, Widespread Panic and many others.
"It's a different kind of feeling having a concert put on by your peers rather than an institution," Mac said in an email to Gambit while en route to Perth, Australia, where he was scheduled to perform with Aaron Neville.
Don Was, president of Blue Note Records and a Grammy Award-winning producer, serves as the concert's musical director (and bass player). Was worked with Dr. John most recently for Gov't Mule's 2013 album Shout! (Blue Note), on which Mac digs into the deep, organ-fueled funk of "Stoop So Low."
"He's got a mastery of piano that just freaks you out," Was says. "He's really good — great technique with a strong personality, and man, he's got one of the strongest personalities I've ever met, and you've got a natural-born leader in the room. The ideas just flow out of him. He plays with a combination of a wild soulfulness and incredible finesse, which you don't find too often. ... I don't know anyone quite like him."
Dr. John — born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. in 1940 — studied under Professor Longhair when Mac was a teenager and worked with Ace Records artists including James Booker and Earl King, all while avoiding studies at Jesuit High School. The then-guitarist assisted on recording sessions and arrangements, then moved to Los Angeles as a session man. He debuted his "Dr. John the Night Tripper" persona — a psychedelic, swampy R&B swami — on 1968's Gris-Gris, produced by Harold Battiste. The album opens with an introduction — "They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper." Upon hearing the album, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun — according to Dr. John's 1996 autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon — yelled, "How can we market this boogaloo crap?"
"Gris-Gris came out when I was a high school senior," Was says. "I lived that album. I'd skip school, get stoned and play that album over and over." Was counts the album's standout track "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" as his favorite. "It holds up today. It's so dark and raw and funky, and I wish people would make records like that today."
Dr. John exploded with 1973's Allen Toussaint-produced, Meters-backed In the Right Place, featuring hits "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such a Night." In the '70s, he turned up on The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. and Sesame Street (as the inspiration for the Muppet Dr. Teeth) and seemingly everywhere in between. More recently, he emerged as a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and Gulf Coast advocate and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
His late-career resurgence earned him his sixth Grammy Award for 2012's critically acclaimed Locked Down, Dr. John's 29th studio effort, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. The album was hailed as a return to the Gris-Gris pastiche of subtropical and psychedelic pop and New Orleans-inspired Afrobeat, blasted through warm vintage amplifiers and overdriven blues. His band's latest incarnation, the Nite Trippers, follows the disbanding of his Lower 911 band last year.
"I look for people who are on top of their game, and they make me feel good about what I'm hearing," he said. "I feel my band has an edge over any other bands and that's the part that I can understand and relate to. They're all kickass musicians and put a fresh spin on anything that I'm laying down from my 50 years of music. Every time we work they make me feel the best and that's a blessing."
For Mac's next trick, he's looking to another local legend.
"I'm currently working on a tribute to Louis Armstrong," he said. "Louis came to me in a dream and told me to do his music but do it my way. To the best of my knowledge it's coming out in July. For this I got some of my favorite down-home cats and a gang and a half of special guests. (Nite Trippers trombonist) Sarah Morrow wrote killer charts and helped me produce it. This next record is going to be one funky-butt tribute to Louis Armstrong."
Was says he can't reveal any big surprises for the tribute performance, though he blames his own ignorance. "My biggest challenge is I have to learn these songs on bass," he says, laughing. "The biggest surprise will be if I don't f—k up these songs."