There was almost a mini-war, a skirmish. Do I stay home and watch the end of the first season of Battlestar Galactica or do I venture into the crowds at the Prospect Park Bandshell (a mere block from my apartment) to see if I can snag a good seat for Dr. John? One would think there would be no contest. Entropy and inertia run deep in my bloodlines and it took an effort to get out of the house. Music versus couch potatosity.
I knew Dr. John was playing this summer and although I had some of his cds and admired him, did I really want to get out there and get finagaling? Early in the week, I had stumbled across Toni Price's song, Remember Me (it's an .aiff file so it will take awhile to download) with Dr. John literally tickling the ivories. His playing was perfect, understated yet providing texture, tone, and sweetness. Yeah, he has a solo on this tune, but his support, his exquisite timing, kicks up Toni’s vocals and makes the song.
I mean, how much inertia can I let myself get away with? By the time I woke up from my nap, the show had begun (two other bands). Getting a good seat would not be a simple matter.
It was hot tonight, and even hotter in the crowd. Many happy, drunk, and generally bodacious Brooklynites wandered and boogied in the aisles. I saw my future self sitting in one of those very comfortable fold-up chairs reading the Sunday Times Magazine while waiting for Dr. John. I bought my wine allowance (one glass) and surveyed the seated crowd. After all those years of weaving through the crowd to stand at the feet of Jerry Garcia, I can still suss out the most direct route to where I can hear and see the best.
Nice. I spied what I expected was an empty seat about 13 rows from the stage. Excellent choice. Right in front of the sound booth, too, so the sound ought to be good. I wafted down the aisle, shaking and shimming to Chuck Brown as I checked out the other denizens of Aisle 13. Did that backpack belong to someone on a beer/piss/food run or was it being saved … for me? The man adjacent to my future seat, took a walk. I stopped him to ask about the missing occupant. He did not know, but thought perhaps it was being saved for someone. I looked for back-up. And then, during the set-up for Dr. John, I just decided to just take a load off. You know, the bad knee thing.
A New Orleans night sky, cottony clouds moved, but not very quickly. The air was hot and sticky with a cooling right beneath it, more of a teasing heat than a punishing one. The crowd near my seat was replete with music lovers, trading stories about shows, bits of trivia about this and that band. The p.a. played Rehab, and there was a collective sad sigh about Amy. Knowing nods and solemn shaking of heads. Aretha’s Respect and Rock Steady followed. A good omen. As the lights went down, the crowd lit up. Yum. The sweet smell of mary jane lilted the heavy air. I'm blowin' away ...
There are musicians who are performers and there are performers who are musicians. Dr. John is a musician who performs. His look, his vibe, his story are all amusing and engaging. But the man and his band are there to PLAY. Tight, intelligent, with a masterful groove.
I made the right choice.
He opened with If It Ain’t Got That Swing (much better than this). The grand piano and old-school organ (sorry, I can’t identify those very easily) were face to face. Dr. John would sometimes straddle the bench, left hand playing piano lead, right hand salting the mix. Mostly, though, he played piano with the narrative drive found in the finest guitar players.
My favorite lead players (Richard Thompson, Jerry Garcia, a young Eric Clapton etc) write their stories in notes, the carefully chosen repetition, the variation that builds, the next note that deepens the story. Just as my favorite authors chose the length of their sentences, their phrases colored with the right words, the flashes of insight that reveal both a compelling journey and a deeper truth about something.
I should have known something was up when I saw a white Les Paul neatly plugged in and ready to go. This being New York, just about anyone breathing might show up. But who showed up was Dr. John, guitarist. Turns out he played both until some kind of shooting accident (?) made him unfit for guitar playing. I could scarcely believe it was he. I kept looking over at the lead player (John Fohl, check him out) to make sure the Doc wasn’t faking. Lead guitar’s loss, the Dr. had something to be heard wherever he puts his attention (and fingers).
Another hallmark of a real deal musician is the band he puts together and how they play. These folks were not just here for the do-re-mi. Although the trombonist was not particularly impressive, the rest of the band jammed in the mother groove, a delight to behold and absorb. The elements of the summer night, led by The Night Tripper, held us all.
Addendum: Doc also played Love for Sale. Check out this version from In A Sentimental Mood. It has some wacky New-Orleans-meets-Lalo-Schifrin-vibe.