A half-century on, and Dr. John has still got his mojo workin’. The de facto ambassador of New Orleans music and eminence of the gris-gris, the man born John Mac Rebennack has been a participant and presence on the American music scene for 60 of his 74 years. And you can add up that time spent in a musical life with the numbers: as a leader or side player, he’s appeared on more than 50 releases, hit No. 9 on the charts with his 1973 single, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and snagged six Grammy Awards. And remember this number: On Oct. 4, Dr. John returns to Northeast Florida with his band The Nite Trippers, when they’re sure to turn the former-church-turned-Ponte Vedra Concert Hall into a temple of past-and-present Crescent City music.
Along with his rollicking, virtuoso piano playing and inimitable raspy vocal delivery, the good Doctor is known for prescribing a “fonky” mix of traditionals and originals. Collaborations and performances with top-tier peers are par for the course. Canned Heat, Allen Toussaint, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Rickie Lee Jones, The Band, Mike Bloomfield, Carly Simon, Doug Sahm, and Eric Clapton are just a few of artists with whom the native of New Orleans’ Third Ward has worked.
In 2012, Dr. John enjoyed a late-career upswing with the album, Locked Down. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the 10-song collection benefited from some tough tunes and an aggressive mix that found favor with fans and critics alike. Last year’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, a musical tribute to Louis Armstrong, featured guest artists including Bonnie Raitt, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and Arturo Sandoval, and received numerous accolades. Unsurprisingly, with these two current albums and his still-stellar live performances, Dr. John is proving that an artist in his twilight years can maintain a level of creative vibes, continue to produce music that pays tribute to the past, and remain intriguing, up-to-date, and adventurous.
Lining up a phone interview with Dr. John turned out to be a bit of an adventure itself. The journey began last month when his upcoming show here was announced. After reaching out to his press contact (who was incredibly helpful), it was explained to me that my name was on the top of list, with the caveat that Dr. John is indifferent (can you blame him?) to doing interviews. Emails were volleyed back and forth for weeks. Finally, a time was secured. Then after that time was nailed down, circumstances forced us to reschedule, due to what was described to me as a “grueling tour.” Since I would’ve talked to the man at dawn, I was right on board when the interview time with the original Nite Tripper was pushed forward to evening. Five hours prior to the approaching hour, a sudden email told me that, due to logistical problems, if I wanted to speak with the man, it would need to happen immediately.
With his road manager telling me, “Mac just woke up,” when he answered the phone, it was then handed to a groggy-yet-gracious Dr. John. Given an allotted 10 minutes to speak with the legend, here follows a bit of our short and sweet, somnambulant chat.
Folio Weekly: So you’re on the road right now. What kind of stuff are you focusing on this time around?
Dr. John: Hey — whatever we can do, we can do it. [Laughs.] Listen, man, it’s a blessing to be doing something.
Who is in this incarnation of The Nite Trippers band?
I got Sarah Morrow as our musical directoress on trombone and vocals, Pete Griffin on bass, Brian Braziel on drums, and Jamie Kime on guitar. And, hey, they are tough.
I gotcha. You know, I saw you play here in Jacksonville about 10 years ago with Taj Mahal and Charlie Musselwhite. Ever since you were a kid, you’ve been around these really high-level players. How do you stand your ground but also surrender to the group?
Well, sometimes it weird and sometimes it ain’t. [Laughs.]
I really like that Spirit of Satch, and now you’ve hit two out of the park, back to back; first with Locked Down and now this one. Those albums are divergently different as far as their tone and production. Do you ever get a kind of whiplash shifting gears like that?
Sarah helped me produce this album and she’s badass. And she did most of the arrangements. We had Bones Malone do one of the charts and we had … goddamn, man, I can’t remember his name, but this other cat did a chart. [Laughs.]
It’s all good. You know, like with this record, you’ve played a lot of traditional tunes that pointed back to the elders.
Yeah and I’m gettin’ ready to do a Fats Waller record and I’m doing that with Tommy LiPuma. I actually haven’t had a chance to listen to all of the tunes but we’re gonna start on that in October or November.
In recent years, you worked with some interesting players, like Jason Pierce from Spiritualized and Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys. As far as rock players, are there any other artists you’d like to work with?
Well … I was thinking I wanted to do something with Stevie Wonder. And I had no idea what we could do, but it’d be a good thing.
A lot of people know you for your hits, but your albums have so many deep cuts. I mean, tunes like “Glowin’,” “Somebody Changed the Lock” … “I Thought I Heard New Orleans Say.” Are there any songs you’re particularly proud of that are more off the radar?
Hey, sometimes I can think of them, and sometimes I can’t. [Laughs.] It’s easy to ask them questions, but not so easy to answer ’em. [Laughs.]
OK, I’ll take that, man. [Laughs.] I gotta ask you about New Orleans. We just passed the decade mark of Hurricane Katrina. How do you think the city is healing?
Yeah … hey, listen … the whole Lower Ninth Ward is a problem and that’s where Fats used to reside and so many people resided there. Our guitar player Shine [the late, great Al “Shine” Robinson] lived there and we used to write stuff for a lotta people back in the game. I mean, we had Aretha cut “When the Battle is Over,” Ben E. King cut a tune … but everything was a like a good thing, ya know? Back in the game, we always had some kinda flavor that we pulled together.
Some of your earlier, heavy stuff seems as tethered to spirituality and mysticism as much as just the music of New Orleans.
I know the first couple of records we did with Harold Battiste were records that we were makin’ a feel. And a lot of people say that those records we did was, you know, spiritually hip; like Babylon and Gris-Gris. A lot of people say that’s the records that they’d like to have on a desert island, or some shit. [Laughs.]