Near the end of his February 27th show at New York's Town Hall, singer-pianist Mac Rebennack – the New Orleans R&B medicine man also known as Dr. John – opened what was obviously a slow, dark ballad with an extended run on his piano: robust flourishes of anguish in the middle and upper ranges; rhythmic torrents of sob down below. When he eventually leaned into the mic, in front of his road band the Nitetrippers and six-piece brass section, the tempo and rueful flair of the music practically announced the song, the traditional, mourning blues "St. James Infirmary."
In fact, Dr. John sang a very different set of lyrics to that woe, from the jumping, gospel standard "When the Saints Go Marching In." The juxtaposition, part of an all-Louis Armstrong program based on Dr. John's 2014 album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (Proper/Concord), is not on that release. But it was all Armstrong; the trumpeter recorded popular, iconic versions of both songs – in 1928 and 1938 respectively – and he returned to them almost nightly with the All-Stars, his touring group, at their late-Forties and Fifties height.
The switcheroo was also pure New Orleans, a city where celebration through trouble is a daily obligation and brass bands lead funeral processions at two speeds: in sorrow and hymns on the way out to the cemetery, then with survivors' determination at a second-line gait on the way back to town. That half of the service came right after "Saints," when Dr. John veered his troupe into another spiritual, "Lay My Burden Down," taken at the former's usual speed and concluding with the leader at the piano, in another soliloquy crowded with forefathers – Armstrong pressed in there with Professor Longhair and Fats Domino – but alive, this time, with joy.
Hot Jazz and Gris-Gris
Dr. John has been honoring the living spirits in New Orleans music for as long as he has been making albums, since his psychedelic spin on voodoo ritual on 1968's Gris-Gris. His best records are always history with a lesson, propelled with authentic, forward thrust: the 1972 collection of Dew Drop Inn-jukebox covers, Dr. John's Gumbo; the taut, progressive funk of In the Right Place (1973) and Desitively Bonnaroo (1974); the vigorous return to that cumulative grit and flair on 2012's Locked Down.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat is closer to 1971's The Sun, Moon & Herbs – loaded with helping stars, including Bonnie Raitt, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band – and specific in its tribute. That meant, at Town Hall, no Dr. John hits other than an encore of "Such a Night" from Right Place. But the powerhouse New Orleans-born trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who plays on Ske-Dat-De-Dat's opening track, "What a Wonderful World," is on this tour as a featured guest. His soloing across Dr. John's grizzled singing and percolating lower hand on the piano in the dirty-funk arrangement of "Mack the Knife" – clearly sliced off the '73 Top Ten hit "Right Place Wrong Time" – evoked the jubilant crossfire in Armstrong's historic late-Twenties recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups.
At times, especially early in the set, Dr. John's voice and piano seemed overrun, or undermiked, in the house mix by the horns and his rhythm section. And Ske-Dat-De-Dat's emphasis on interpretations of vocal features, especially ballads, associated with Armstrong, restricted the show's reach. A recent box set of Armstrong's matured fire between 1947 and 1958, The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Mosaic), is a solid argument for the trumpeter as the first, modern jam-band star: the soloing center of a band of empathic spirits, fresh and eager on his instrument in a reliable cycle of repertoire. (Two 1947 shows in the box, one of them actually recorded at Town Hall, are delivered just like a Phish gig: two sets with intermission.) Even with a full brass section, generous solo time for those guys and exuberant conducting by trombonist Sarah Morrow, Dr. John's take on Armstrong couldn't go there. That would have been a whole different gig.
Right Place, Every Time
But at 74, Dr. John remains a formidable performer, a force of nature and invention even inside a tight script. Armstrong recorded the sentimental nugget "That's My Home" in 1932 with a big band led by drummer Chick Webb. Dr. John pulled the song forward to the golden age of New Orleans R&B ballads – as if it had first been cut by the great soul man Johnny Adams – in a voice pitted with life and trouble but also loaded with the weathered assurance that there is still no place like his home.
There was plenty of piano too, everywhere. A lot of it was embedded in the arrangements, in the rhythmic tow of the songs. But there were long periods of stand-alone rapture too like the introduction of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" – hearty demonstrations of Dr. John's lifetime of study and departures in the jazz, blues, boogie and Latin tinge of New Orleans piano culture. In that encore, "Such a Night," Dr. John's prolonged solo entrance and can't-quit-yet coda were rich in contemporary strength and deep institutional memory. He also added a little extra sauce piquante: the idea that anything not born in New Orleans ends up there anyway. As he got to the very end of his final chorus on piano, Dr. John pounded out the trademark lick from George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
It was an utterly New York theme taken way down home – in the spirit of Satch.