This past Jazz Fest, one of the hottest tickets in town was an all star tribute to Dr. John featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Allen Toussaint and Gregg Allman. With international superstars worshipping the music he created, Mac decided to pay it forward by recognizing someone who has influenced his own music. Louis Armstrong may not immediately come to mind as a major inspiration for Dr. John, considering the abundance of notable piano players who paved the way for the New Orleans rhythm and blues Dr. John plays so well.
However, the two musicians share commonality in their shared gruff vocals — voices that express the thrill, danger and exuberance of New Orleans that are only earned through living through the grittiest parts of this town. Last Saturday at The Joy Theater, Dr. John lead some of the best players in the city, in a tributary concert to Pops, acknowledging the debt New Orleans music owes him through a celebration of his timeless music.
After kicking off the show with a straightforward, yet gripping take on “What a Wonderful World,” Dr. John and his all-star Nite Trippers band tore through classic Satch cuts from his new tribute album “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.” The band performed top-notch renditions of tunes like “Mack the Knife” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” that retained the originals’ charms while adding that Dr. John spice, producing unique renditions. Dr. John’s vocals were strong and dynamic, proving to be just as iconic as that of Armstrong, as a rotating cast filled out the rest of the band, which never faltered even with over ten players (and two drummers!) on stage for most of the show.
Louis Armstrong may be most popular because of his distinctively soothing croon, but his chops on the trumpet receive equal reverence from jazz fans and players. Sharing the front of the stage with Dr. John were some of the best trumpet men in the city and world. Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and James Andrews shared lead trumpet duties, each delivering inspired, expressive solos that would have made Satch proud.
But while the music was a joyous celebration of one of New Orleans’ proudest musical sons, there was a bit too much promotion for the new album that teetered on turning the show into a late-night infomercial. The Louis Armstrong tribute album was released about a month ago, making it a bit of a stretch to call last weekend’s show a “record release show;” we must have been told about the new record at least ten times, all within in an hour. Shameless promotion aside, the plugs for the new record would have been much more bearable without long-winded introductions between every other song by emcees from WWOZ.
Luckily the music spoke louder than the promos, and the band held the crowd in the palm of their hands from start to finish. Even a funeral march rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching in” felt joyous and elicited some of the biggest cheers of the night. When all the musicians stepped onstage for the raucous finale, the celebratory mood was impossible to resist as even the VIPs in the seats up front got up to dance. Over 40 years into his storied career, Dr. John continues to challenge himself and play some of the most interesting and enjoyable music in the world. The same could have been said for Louis Armstrong, who has unexpectedly found a spiritual successor in Mac Rebennack.