Dr. John Miller Outdoor Theatre September 7, 2013
Happy birthday, Miller Outdoor Theatre. This year the Hermann Park amphitheater marks its 90th year of providing all manner of cultural offerings for the low cost of absolutely free, said to be the largest program of its kind in the nation.
But municipal arts budgets and modern tour routing being what they are, Miller doesn't see a pop artist of Dr. John's caliber very often. Needless to say, the Night Tripper's performance Saturday night was enough to provoke significant pangs of regret that it doesn't happen more. The weather was unseasonably cool -- it rained directly before he went onstage shortly after 8 p.m. -- the music was just right and the audience enjoyed itself without being rude.
Such a night. It's hard to imagine the conditions being any better unless the admission was free. Wait a minute...
In some ways Dr. John is an ideal artist for Miller. Sometimes I'm convinced that Houston live-music fans want nothing more than to be in New Orleans, so it was gratifying to see that they didn't embarrass themselves when the inevitable second line broke out late in the show. Quite the contrary.
Likewise, the 72-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer rocked a sharp blood-red suit rather than his voodoo-shaman getup of yore, but it was no problem to imagine a mischievous -- possibly even supernatural -- twinkle in his eye, even at the very top of Miller's crowded hillside. But when you think about it, the good Doctor must have to toe a pretty fine line between those fanciful characters he conjures up out of those steady-rollin' R&B piano lines of his and becoming a touristy New Orleans caricature who happens to take his act on the road.
That city justifiably occupies such a mythical place within America's musical imagination, and Dr. John plays into it from about every angle he can -- the voodoo gris-gris man, keeper of Fats Domino's flame, even the raspy-voiced teddy bear of Nora Ephron soundtracks for scenes where "What a Wonderful World" doesn't quite fit. Bassist Dwight Bailey did break into a quick "When the Saints Go Marching In" solo as Dr. John was introducing his Lower 911 band, but that was about as cheesy as Saturday got.
Instead he and his crew prescribed all kinds of good stuff. The five cats with him came to play, and that's exactly what they did: a little Stax here, a T-Bone Walker-style shuffle there -- "the cat that wrote that is from here, and that's all I'll say," he said; sadly, I didn't recognize the tune -- to go with shades of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" in "Right Place, Wrong Time" and some slow Hendrix hoodoo in "Walk On Gilded Splinters."
He did a little Randy Newman sing-speak on "How Come My Dog Don't Bark (When You Come Around)" -- which drew a laugh on the line "I'm gonna cut you once, but you're gonna bleed twice" -- and called out trombonist Sarah Morrow for a sassy duet on "Makin' Whoopee," after she had already turned in a few rib-sticking solos of her own. The Doctor did not disappoint.
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With the bodacious "Big Shot," he thankfully threw in something from last year's Locked Down, as mystical an album the Night Tripper has ever done. Dr. John stirred up his gris-gris cauldron so well, in fact, that when he did try to slip in a serious message -- as on "Kingdom of Izzness," also from Locked Down -- it felt like it went right over the crowd's head, but it didn't matter because the music was so appetizing. Who wants to think about social problems when he's singing and swinging through "Goodnight Irene"?
So by the time the crowd brought him back for an encore, "Such a Night," lightning was flickering across the sky and I had long stopped trying to suppress a huge grin. I was hardly alone.
Did I mention this was a free show?
Personal Bias: It's killing me I didn't recognize the song he said was written by a cat from Houston. Something about loving your baby 24 hours a day, but within the realm of the blues that hardly narrows it down very much.
The Crowd: Families, older couples on date night, owners of LSU folding chairs.
Overheard In the Crowd: One very cranky toddler.
Random Notebook Dump: To give you an idea of who else digs Dr. John, I had nice conversations with both longhaired local bluesman The Mighty Orq, creator of the fine new album Soulful City, and local MC Nosaprise, who said he recently got engaged. Mazel tov!
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