"This is what they're doing between church and the chicken dinner," my friend said a few songs into Dr. John and the Lower 911's opening-night set Tues., March 14, at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. So it wasn't actually Sunday. This wasn't New Orleans, either, but the flavor was right.
The 65-year-old one-time Mac Rebennack moved between Hammond organ and electric and acoustic piano, sometimes within one tune. Tuesday's show, the first of six sold-out evenings, captured the feel of his hometown's streets while covering a big piece of stylistic ground. He's been, by turns, a graduate of the Professor Longhair School of keyboard syncopation, pop-jazz favorite, psychedelic-funk star, and session man for the Exile-era Stones, Spiritualized, and Sonny Bono.
At Jazz Alley, the Doctor built a Ramsey Lewis–style groove around "Love for Sale," touching so lightly on the original's melody that he earned a rewrite credit. Few, if any, have paid such gritty acknowledgment to the song's theme of prostitution and pimping: "I got 'em, big and fine, short and tall." Another standard received a lighter, but just as indelible, overhaul. Or did Ella Fitzgerald's version of "I'm Just a Lucky So and So" also find her eyeing "a dream that keep me trippin'"?
Joy and gravity held each other up like a sodden couple staggering down an early-morning lane. Katrina loomed over the music; one imagines the storm taking a mythical place alongside Stagger Lee, a lyrical archetype, not to mention a reminder that the blues clichés we live with rose from genuine pain. An oldies-radio-unfriendly Stagger was paid his respects, in a version that brought to mind writer Greil Marcus' admiring report that Dr. John could sing the song for a half-hour without repeating a stanza.
The five minutes or so he spent on the Stagger myth in Seattle were especially gleeful, and came not long after an angry take on Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey Speaks His Mind." The New Orleans R&B veteran penned "Monkey" in the '50s on a break from his Fats Domino collaborations; Rebennack seemed to take special delight in a primate's refutation of Darwin. Human behavior from infidelity to murder, the song made clear, rendered the idea of evolution a slander on the jungle beast. It wasn't a big mental leap from Bartholomew's drolleries to the hurricane-related sins of the current administration.
An organ-quartet rendition of "Tuxedo Junction"—augmented with some Dr. John footwork that recalled old Monk footage—and an encore of Longhair's own beguiling "Big Chief" found the group peaking as if they were playing the third set of a humid Friday night. Sure, it wasn't the Ninth Ward. But it wasn't just the band's plugs for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Katrina's Piano Fund (Google them) that nudged us into remembering that we're all New Orleanians now.