Exhibit A for the defense of the the struggling blues piano tradition: Dr. John's dazzling two-hour set Wednesday at the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica.
Using the eclectic legacy of his native New Orleans as a jumping-off point, the veteran musician imbued the second of his two sold-out shows with such an informal ambiance that you almost felt you were eavesdropping on a talented musician performing for himself.
The solo piano format is an elastic one in the right pair of hands, and Dr. John (ne Mac Rebennack) repeatedly mixed divergent styles to send the music spinning off on unexpected tangents. One introduction feinted toward Ray Charles' "Mess Around" but wound up as Chris Kenner's "Sick and Tired." Another piece featured trilling ragtime melodies over a pumping boogie-woogie rhythm.
The brooding "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" was just as eerie in the skeletal solo form as it was in the full version that introduced the mysterious performer to rock audiences in the late '60s, and the blend of raucous funk and soothing gospel on "Qualified" was only marginally less effective than the song's heavily arranged recorded version.
Other highlights: a bedrock boogie where Dr. John let his robust left hand do the walking, the comic folk wisdom of "Average Kind of Guy," and a solo (following "High Blood Pressure") that fully captured the goofy charm of the Huey (Piano) Smith sound. Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," an encore nod to the late New Orleans piano great James Booker, capped the masterful performance.