Dr. John: More colorful than Mardi Gras
05:00 AM, Jun 20, 2013
If you go
What: Xerox Rochester International Jazz Party with Josh Panda & the Hot Damned (7 p.m.) and Dr. John & The Night Trippers (9 p.m.).
Where: East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage.
At first sight, Mac Rebennack seemed to be pure invention. He emerged in 1968 as “Dr. John, The Night Tripper,” with a debut album, Gris-Gris, that fused New Orleans R&B, funk and rock with swamp voodoo. He was psychedelic Creole, pounding a piano while wearing elaborate Mardi Gras robes and a headdress.
He’s been many places over the ensuing years. But when Dr. John plays the free street party at Friday’s opening night of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, the music will resonate with the New Orleans of his most-recent album, Locked Down, which feels like an overview of those raw, exciting, early days.
Dr. John ponders that overly academic choice of word: overview.
“I don’t like to think of anything as underviews,” he growls. Not exactly an unwelcoming growl; it’s more about projecting a don’t-mess-with-me mood. What you’d expect out of a guy who once ran a house of many ill reputes: prostitutes, drugs, thieves. But he’s long since left behind those youthful and often nightmarish nights of moneymaking scams, heroin addiction, working at an illegal abortion clinic, prison time and getting shot in the hand, which turned the guitar player into a pianist. Not exactly the career path you’d expect out of someone who was once an Ivory Soap baby.
“All you can say to people is, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve had experience that’s not cool,’ and show them how not cool it is, and not be living like that,” Dr. John says. “I’ve talked to street gangs of America, I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years. I try to do the best I could in that situation.”
The Dr. John identity remains in place, with new pieces, even as the Night Tripper part of the act faded. It had to. The stage inventions paled in comparison to his true, larger-than-life character. The one-time session man is an exalted member of the music community, a five-time Grammy winner. He’s a ferocious defender of his hometown of New Orleans, still shockingly scarred nearly eight years after Hurricane Katrina. And with the BP Gulf oil spill still washing ashore in the memory, he’s stepping up to speak on behalf of what he calls “Grandmother Earth.”
His mood seems enlightened. “I just spent a beautiful day with the Dalai Lama and his interpreter,” Dr. John says. “That to me was very correct.” He also touches on the recent controversy of the Monsanto Company’s production of untested, genetically modified grains.
“It’s my hope and prayer that I could do something to help this planet, that’s the main thing. It’s an old saying, each one teach one.”
Dr. John is a music teacher.
“I try to express little things that I believe might help somebody,” he says. “You never know if they’re gonna be open to it. People don’t ever like to talk about some things, so they sure don’t like to look at them. That’s one reason I try to write songs and say things.”
Locked Down is particularly rife with his suspicions of a world gone wrong. He suggests a song called “The Kingdom of Izzness,” and its lines about “History’s a mystery of the chosen few.”
“Revolution,” he says. “Government corruption. It’s never been a good thing. I’ve lived under it a long time.
“The CIA, FBI, KKK, organizations that are out there doing a lot of things. The IRS got caught being up to something, right? I look at them all as being somewhat misguided. Nothing is going to be perfect. Man’s not perfect. So nothing is.”
Yes, Dr. John admits, he has an anti-authority streak. “I have been known to have missed flights because of transportation security, Homeland Security and so forth,” he says. “Telling people how they do their jobs.”
So he demands his rights as an American citizen. “I do carry a Constitution,” Dr. John says. But he also is familiar with an older document, known as the Oneida Constitution, which some scholars have noted offers phrases and ideas later incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. Save for one concept: “The only reason we didn’t take the entire Oneida Constitution was one word,” Dr. John says. ” ‘Property.’ “
Communal ownership. Had the Founding Fathers embraced that idea as well, “I think the world would be a lot different,” Dr. John says. “That’s what my spirit tells me. Everybody feels differently about this, obviously. Especially people in real estate.”
Of course, as developers seized the Katrina-wrecked property of the poor, working their own development schemes, we’ve seen that not all property owners are created equal. “People rebuilding their homes, a lot of times their property was seized,” Dr. John says. “It was not only seized by developers, it was seized by politicians that became developers. I can’t find any good reason for that. Not very cool. This is corruption in politics.”
This is his city that they are desecrating. He learned its heartbeat from hearing it in his father’s business, one of those long-lost blends of appliance and record store. He hears it in what may be his next project, a tribute to another New Orleans son, Louis Armstrong. And now Dr. John sees that the New Orleans so reflected in his music has been stripped of its people, and thus its funk and soul. The Lower 9th Ward, he says, “is empty. Fats Domino doesn’t live there anymore.”