The third night of the inaugural Lincoln Center edition of the Ponderosa Stomp — the annual spring resurrection of forgotten roots-rock and R&B heroes and heroines, founded and held in New Orleans — was an oddly formal affair, compared to the outdoor soul and rockabilly shows presented earlier in the week. “Everybody get on your feet/You make me nervous when you’re in your seat,” Robert Parker sang on Sunday night in a well-preserved voice at the start of his 1966 hit “Barefootin’,” one of the many Crescent City R&B classics associated with the evening’s honoree, producer-arranger-songwriter Wardell Quezergue. But sitting down is where the otherwise delighted audience at Alice Tully Hall stayed during most of the two-hour revue. In New Orleans, when a song like that is in the air, anything short of a shimmy is against the law.
But Quezergue, who turns 80 this year, deserves the lofty setting. In the Sixties and Seventies, he earned the nickname “The Creole Beethoven” for his masterful blend of New Orleans rhythms and commercial wisdom in bedrock soul recordings such as Earl King’s Trick Bag” (1962), Professor Longhair”s “Big Chief” (1964) and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (1970), then on mainstream collaborations with Paul Simon and Willie Nelson. At Lincoln Center, Quezergue conducted a ten-piece band from a chair as more than half a dozen of his original charges, including Dr. John, the Dixie Cups, Jean Knight and Tammy Lynn, recreated their biggest hits with him.
Original Dixie Cups Barbara and Rosa Hawkins were teenagers when they cut “Chapel of Love” and their 1965 Top Forty version of the Mardi Gras Indian chant “Iko Iko,” but the current trio (now featuring a Neville sister) was as spunky as it is each year at Jazz Fest. Tony Owens, a bear of a soul man with a radical-fade haircut, reprised his 1970 collector’s favorite, “Confessin’ a Feelin’,” with a great yearning growl, and Mississippi-born singer Dorothy Moore fought the country heartbreak in “Misty Blue” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” covered with Quezergue in the mid-Seventies, with gospel brawn. Dr. John got the biggest slice of the night, and used it to play early sides he cut when he was still just Mac Rebennack and one of Quezergue’s regular session cats, among them 1959’s “Storm Warning” (the Doctor played guitar, his first instrument) and “Sahara,” a propulsive 1961 fusion of TV-detective-theme noir and galloping Huey Smith-style piano.
There were, strangely, no emcee (performers came on without announcement) or speechs celebrating Quezergue’s gifts and past. (He made brief remarks near the end). A little more wildness would have gone a long way. But to get Dr. John performing — and Quezergue conducting — a nutty 1958 ode to a TV horror-movie host, “Morgus the Magnificent,” in such refined surroundings was worth the juxtaposition. It was a truly weird — therefore typically New Orleans — thrill.