Brian Williams – yes, the dry-witted NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams – introduced Friday’s “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music” with a warning: “I don’t know if you have shoulder harnesses,” he told the crowd at New Orleans’ historic Saenger Theatre, “but strap in.” Williams, sure enough, wasn’t kidding, and the following four-hour tribute to the master R&B pianist and singer-songwriter turned out to be a spectacular event, one undoubtedly worthy of the DVD release this is scheduled to receive.
Although the night could’ve used a charismatic emcee – Williams introduced only the first of many surprise guests – it sure started strong, with Bruce Springsteen playing “Right Place Wrong Time” (off Dr. John’s 1973 In the Right Place) alongside the Doctor himself. According to event organizers, Springsteen wasn’t billed for the event in part because he had only been booked a few days prior, and a couple hours earlier, he and his E Street Band played an almost three-hour set at the nearby New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Bruce took off after his performance, presumably to get some much deserved rest, but the show continued with a procession of performers worthy of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, or even The Last Waltz. Backed by an all-star band led by musical director Don Was, Allen Toussaint (who has been a Creole character foil for Dr. John’s ragin’ Cajun), Anders Osborne (“Dr. John!” Osborne said between his two songs, “Can’t find a bigger influence on me than that”), former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, local soul singer Irma Thomas and gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama all followed. The night’s honoree, meanwhile, returned to join Aaron and Charles Neville in playing “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” a Percy Mayfield song that he had once recorded with Odetta.
Other than this and the Springsteen performance, the 73-year-old Dr. John – his given name is Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. but here mostly referred to as either “Doc” or “Mac” – mostly remained on the side. When John returned, however, whether to jam with another musician or accept $5,200 donation made in to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic in his name – he was always warmly received.
This was never more true than at the end of the night, when, as is common practice with these sorts of tributes, the stage was filled with the majority of the earlier lineup and a handful of guests, a group that this night included John Fogerty, Mavis Staples, John Boutté, Widespread Panic, several members of the Original Meters, Gregg Allman, Tab Benoit, Ryan Bingham, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Warren Haynes. All piled onto the stage for “Iko Iko,” a traditional Mardi Gras Indian funk anthem that Dr. John helped popularize on his 1972 record Dr. John’s Gumbo.