At the VooDoo on Thursday night, Dr. John was introduced as an icon and a living legend, and during a set that lasted 90 minutes, the man born Malcolm John Rebennack proved he is both.
After shuffling slowly on stage, a cane in each hand, and taking a seat at the grand piano, he led his four-piece band through the “Iko Iko/Shoo Fly (Don’t Bother Me)” medley, which included the first of many sprite trombone solos from Sarah Morrow, who also served as his emcee and de facto musical director. After that came “Life’s a One Way Ticket,” a slow-moving soul tune about getting the most out of life before you “end up six feet in the ground.”
Dr. John is doing just that. He will turn 75 next month and has aged gracefully. His inimitable voice has shed some of its power but little of its gritty character. He had little to say to his audience — Morrow took care of that — but he was animated throughout, especially when delivering an instrumental run at the piano or keyboards. He remained there all night except during the bluesy “Mama and Papa,” when he showed off some skills on the electric guitar
He was at his liveliest during “Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” a rousing tribute to his hometown that fused jazz with some hearty blues. He tapped into that city’s deep, rich and diverse music history all night, delivering gusts of funk, blues, jazz and boogie-woogie rock.
He applied a heavy layer of funk to “Right Place, Wrong Time,” one of his best-known songs, which elicited the loudest response of the night. If he’s tired of playing a song that is now more than 40 years old, it didn’t show. Another highlight: “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” a gothic blues number with a Tom Waits vibe. It included a nifty solo from drummer Reggie Jackson.
The set list included several covers. The best of those was his re-arranged version of “What a Wonderful World,” which he and his band turned into a triumphant, uptempo number that prompted some dancing among the seated crowd of about 300. His rollicking rendition of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” which he cast as a barrel-chested blues romp, was another highlight.
This was a no-frills, nuts-and-bolts show. Songs were delivered in a seamless and steady salvo right to the end. He closed with a warm, visceral cover of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” then “Such a Night,” a ballad about stealing your best friend’s girl. He filled that with another impressive piano flourish, then, canes in hand, shuffled offstage to a lively vamp from his band and a reminder from Morrow that the crowd had just witnessed a living legend. But no one had forgotten that.
Iko Iko/Shoo Fly (Don’t Bother Me); Life’s a One Way Ticket; The Monkey Speaks Its Mind; On the Wrong Side of the Railroad; Goin’ Back to New Orleans; I Walk on Guilded Splinters; Right Place, Wrong Time; Mama and Papa; What a Wonderful World; Old Settlers; Cotton Fields Back Home; Good Night, Irene; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; Such a Night.