When most people think of Dr. John, first, they’ll think of his 1968 album ‘Gris Gris’ – a groundbreaking work melding voodoo blues, deep psychedelia and a touch of New Orleans jazz – or his popular ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ single which showed a love of funk that fit the early 70s perfectly. Maybe they’ll think about his appearance at The Band’s Last Waltz, where he was invited to sing ‘Such A Night’, captured on celluloid for future generations to discover.
There was far more to Dr. John than that. Mac Rebennack – as he was born – was a remarkable musician; a visionary artist and top drawer pianist. You only need to scratch below surface of those most popular elements of his sprawling catalogue to discover some gold. Take a listen to the challenging ‘Patriotic Flag Waiver’ from 1969’s ‘Babylon’; it remains one of the most starkly angry anti-war statements from the period; check out ‘Black John The Conqueror’ from 1970s ‘Sun Moon & Herbs’ and you’ll hear a perfect mix of his earlier scariness with finely tuned New Orleans funk and jazz, laying the foundations for his later records. Maybe take a deep dive into his 1972 album of New Orleans based covers and you’ll get a better feel for Mac the accomplished pianist.
Better yet, his perfect style can be found in solo form on the often overlooked ‘Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack’ from ’81. An album with just Mac and his piano, you’d be hard pressed to tell when the recordings were made, as is the timelessness of his best work.
Mac Rebennack was rarely in fashion and yet, for those who seemed to understand the love he put into his music, he was never really out of fashion. This is perhaps best demonstrated on his award nominated LP ‘Anutha Zone’ from 1998. The album features guest appearances from a few unlikely British musicians – none of whom were old enough to appreciate ‘Gris Gris’ upon release – and yet here they were: Paul Weller, Supergrass man Gaz Coombes and even Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman all dropping in on those excellent sessions. ‘Anutha Zone’ won critical plaudits, but even Mac’s twenty first century recordings – ‘Creole Moon’ from 2001 and ‘Locked Down’ from 2012 – sounded incredibly vibrant. Love him or hate him, you could never have accused the Doctor of putting in a substandard work or going through the motions.
Captured below is a lengthy set by Dr. John and his band captured for German TV. It leans more heavily towards bluesy material than his earlier shows, but his piano work is stunning; the set list perfect for the occasion.
Mac Rebennack: 1941-2019