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O.C. Music Review : Dr. John: A Delicious Gumbo of Moods

March 04, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — It's all but essential for anyone deeply interested in jazz, blues, rock or funk to, at some point, visit New Orleans.

For decades, musicians in this melting pot have commingled these various forces and others to produce distinctive, inexorably attractive sounds. But if you haven't made the journey, or can't return soon, there's nothing like a visit from a genuine Crescent City legend to give you the town's flavor.

And that's just what Mac Rebennack delivered to a two-thirds full but very vocal crowd Thursday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre: a tasty gumbo of musical moods that had New Orleans written all over it.

Rebennack, known better by his stage name, Dr. John, the Night Tripper, is a native of the grand Southern city, and the pianist-singer infused his melange of sounds with a sizzle and vibrancy that might make you imagine you were romping on Rampart Street for Mardi Gras.

The good doctor, in his early 50s, used to dress in the persona of the Night Tripper--wearing long, flowing coats and a headdress to resemble a beneficent voodoo priest dispatching incantatory spells to all within earshot. These days, he wears so-called street clothes, but the man could never be described as ordinary-looking.

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At the Galaxy, he wore a gray suit (it matched his full salt-and-pepper beard), a silk purple shirt, brown shoes and a matching fedora. And parked behind the piano, he exuded as much the look of a rogue New Orleans homicide detective taking a night off to entertain friends as he did a musical magician.

The leader and his band issued a compelling serenade of Dr. John favorites and pop and New Orleans' classics from such albums as "In a Sentimental Mood" and his recent "Television." The importance of the backing players--David Barard (bass), Smiley Ricks (percussion), Herman Ernest (drums), Bobby Broom (guitar), Red Tyler (tenor sax), Charlie Miller (trumpet) and Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax)--cannot be overstated. The musicians worked hard, yet with subtlety, setting up the evocative atmosphere that allowed the pianist-singer to strut his stuff with complete relaxation and assurance.

Dr. John, whose show tonight at the House of Blues in West Hollywood is sold out, came on doing the bubbling "Iko, Iko." After an invigorating look at Sly Stone's "Thank You," the pianist offered a persuasive medley, beginning with Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," where he danced around the lovely melody, dropping in tinkling right-hand notes in a discreet yet quietly rollicking manner. His mix of rhythm and tunefulness made one think that if Thelonious Monk had been born in New Orleans, he might have played like this. Cuber, arguably the top jazz baritonist, then added a brief solo of complex, swirling runs and long, elastic notes.

Then a funk beat began, and the musicians slithered into the entrancing "Walk on Gilded Splinters," and the leader's speak-sing drawl--he sang with eyes closed--brought cheers from the house. Later, he offered another sly twist, going from a few bars of Monk's " 'Round Midnight" into his own beat-driven "In the Jungle."

The showman included his hits--"Right Place, Wrong Time," to which Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and others contributed lyrics, and "Such a Night"--as well as tunes he simply enjoys, such as "More Than You Know" and the emotional "My Buddy," where his sandpapery, frog-croak voice was at its most intimate.

Despite doing little that was new or unexpected, the piano man used solid musicianship and a love of his art to provide the kind of show that really warmed a listener, lingering long after the last note had sounded.

Preceding Dr. John on stage was Dag, a quintet whose set included funk-driven numbers from its debut CD, 'Righteous." Though the Raleigh, N.C., band, which at times sounded like a fifth-generation Led Zeppelin, developed some walloping grooves centered around Bobby Patterson's thick-as-your-forearm bass notes, it only occasionally fleshed out its sound and became captivating.

The problems were that Dag's material was not especially strong, nor was it played with fire. The tunes were built on repeating riffs that, though muscular on the bottom--drummer Kenny Soule was rock-solid--lacked top-end excitement that neither Patterson's lead vocals nor guitarist Brian Denny's efforts generally provided.

And when keyboardist Doug Jervey had a solo spot, he tossed its potential away with ho-hum ideas. But on tunes such as "Plow" and "As," the group coalesced and made the most of the moment.

Orange County-based singer Ed Fry opened the show with several original rock numbers that, while not particularly inventive, were strongly energized and and drew much applause.

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