Music News & Reviews

Dr. John bringing slamming Satchmo show to the Lexington Opera House

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, performs Sunday at the Lexington Opera House.  Rebennack, like his musical hero, Louis Armstrong, grew up in New Orleans' Third Ward.
Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, performs Sunday at the Lexington Opera House. Rebennack, like his musical hero, Louis Armstrong, grew up in New Orleans' Third Ward.

There is a tag that Mac Rebennack — known the world over as New Orleans' rock, funk and roots-music patriarch Dr. John — loves to summon when his describing his music.

He uses it in references to his band, his takes on the jazz gems popularized by Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong (which form the foundation of his current album and tour) and the entire gris-gris culture that sits at the heart of his stage persona.

The word is "slamming." But under Rebennack's soulful, unhurried New Orleans dialect, an accent so heavy that one almost hears the humidity dripping from it, the word sounds positively incantatory.

"Slah-muhn."

"I think everything is slamming," says Rebennack, 74, the veteran pianist and six-time Grammy winner, who brings the Armstrong-themed songs of his 2014 album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, to the Lexington Opera House on Sunday. "I feel blessed about everything."

For Rebennack, a love of Armstrong's music was instilled almost at birth. Both musicians hailed from New Orleans' famed Third Ward. But serious admiration began when the young Rebennack was introduced to Armstrong's music at his father's appliance store, which also sold records.

"My father's shop was way out on Gentilly Road, which is far removed from the Third Ward," Rebennack says. "Yeah, my pa played a lot of Louis' records. He was considered traditional jazz, but I also heard bebop and a lot of the Afro-Cuban music. He had race records, too. That was rhythm and blues as well as blues. He had spiritual records and hillbilly records. Those were the kinds of records my father sold."

Rebennack met Armstrong briefly in the late '60s, as his own recording career as Dr. John was beginning and Armstrong's was winding down. Both were clients of champion booker/manager Joe Glaser, whose client list had included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

"I was blessed to meet Louis Armstrong in Joe Glaser's office, and that was just, well, a very spiritual thing," Rebennack says. "We jaw-jerked about him sitting on this rock in Bucktown, right outside of the port of New Orleans. That's when my pa's shop was out there.

"This was across the street from Ralph Schultz's Fresh Hardware store. Louis Armstrong was telling me how he was laughing so hard about what went on at Ralph's store. Ralph could marry you. He could sell you break tag stickers (for automobiles). Whatever he did, he just made Louis laugh."

On Ske-Dat-De-Dat, the pure joy of Armstrong is presented with a New Orleans groove that rings closer to King Oliver and Professor Longhair than to Satchmo himself. An all-star guest list that includes Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Arturo Sandoval, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Blind Boys of Alabama help out, as do two notables who will be part of Rebennack's Nite Trippers band on Sunday: trombonist and Ske-Dat-De-Dat producer and arranger Sarah Morrow, and veteran New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley (an alumnus of Wynton Marsalis' famed 1990s septet, who played the Opera House last fall with pianist Marcus Roberts).

"I'm really grateful to have a slamming band like this," Rebennack says.

Of course, no one on the guest list upstages the mighty Dr. John. The psychedelic shaman pageantry that dominated his concerts and recordings through the decades is largely held in check on Ske-Dat-De-Dat, his sense of Crescent City soul thrives in the way his piano work madly mingles with horns on Dippermouth Blues and in how his singing leads a conga-line reimagining of When You're Smiling to conclude the record.

That kind of soul and rhythm isn't just a fixture of Armstrong's music or even of New Orleans culture. For Dr. John, it's a component of everyday life.

"I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll. You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields."

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