A few years ago, Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack stood me up. The illustrious New Orleans singer/songwriter/pianist/shaman—he calls himself "The Night Tripper"—was supposed to call me for an interview just before a big show. He didn't call.
A week after the show, at around 2 a.m., my phone rang.
"Hey, this is Mac," the raspy-throated caller said, as if we'd been lifelong pals and I was supposed to instantly realize who "Mac" was.
"Mac who?" I asked.
"Mac Rebennack. I'm supposed to call you, right?"
"Ummm, yeah, you were supposed to call a couple of weeks ago, actually. And it's the middle of the night, y'know?"
"Oh, sorry, man. Did I wake you up?"
"Yep. Ummm, I guess that's cool, though. So, uhhh, what's up?"
And the good doctor indeed began to trip into the night, his heart apparently warmed by some soul-cheering substance or another as he inquired about who I was, what kind of music I favored and how my mother was doing these days. I told him I was me, my mom was doing great, and as far as music went, he was among my all-time favorites, a black-magic potentate supreme who single-handedly stewed together chunky bits of just about every kind of music I loved in his bubbling pot of paranormal.
Dr. John, you see, is one of those ageless, eccentric wonders—like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Randy Newman, for instance—whose distinctiveness, brilliance and significance never seems to fade, even in the face of encroaching geezertude, uglitude or indulgitude in heart-warming substances.
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One could, in fact, argue that Dr. John releases of recent vintage—2001's Creole Moon, 2000's Duke Elegant and 1998's Anutha Zone—hold right up to his universally acknowledged classics such as 1973's In the Right Place, 1972's Gumbo and his creepy, voodoo-dripping 1968 solo debut, Gris-Gris. The fact that Famous Others (ranging from such unlikely company as Christina Aguilera, Paul Weller and Portishead to too many all-time blues, jazz, rock, and, of course, N'awlins R&B greats to begin listing here) continue to seek his collaboration speaks volumes about esteem in the profession. It is that very timeless adaptability crossed with scary virtuosity that hallmarks Dr. John as an essential listen, no matter the setting, genre or partnerships he keeps at any given moment.
Oddly, for all the great music he's created in a career dating back to the late '50s, when he sessioned with the likes of Allen Toussaint, Frankie Ford and piano mentor Professor Longhair, Dr. John has only waxed one hit single under his own name over the years—1973's unforgettable funk-up "Right Place Wrong Time." Appropriately, that song does manage to neatly sum up many of the elements that make Dr. John an idiosyncratic genius—the instantly recognizable vocal croak; the leering, junkie-Obeah humor; the shake-that-ass keyboard magnificence; the always-stellar songcraft; the essential, swamp-borne humidity that characterizes every note he performs.
The Doctor is in Friday night at the Cerritos Center. Don't miss the appointment, or you, too, may get a bizarre, unexpected call in the wee hours under a hoodoo moon.
Dr. John's New Orleans Nights at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501. Fri., 8 p.m. $25-$60. All ages.