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Published: 2003/11/01
by Mike Greenhaus

Dr. John, SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, Purchase, NY- 10/25

Dr. John didn't invent New Orleans rock and roll. Yet the veteran keyboardist holds its patent. Blending the genres' Mardi Gras mixture of jazz, funk, and Broadway theatrics into mainstream rock and roll by way of his eclectic collaborations, Dr. John has been New Orleans music's primary ambassador since the early nineteen seventies. So it was a bit surprising that the eccentric musicians' Saturday night SUNY Purchase performance was more akin to a Dave Brubeck recital than a sweaty Neville Brothers club show.

Located in a lush, northern New York City suburb, SUNY Purchase’s Performing Arts Center is a far cry from the smoky New Orleans joints that birthed Dr. John’s sound. A grand, colorful theater originally carved for classical recitals, SUNY Purchase is home to a Jackson Pollock painting and characterized by sit down crowds, not bouncing basement dwellers. But fifty years into Dr. John’s career, the piano man seemed surprisingly comfortable set against the theater’s baroque aura. Part jazz pioneer, part awkward uncle, Dr. John paced his show slowly, searching for subtle quirks instead of flashy showmanship. Waddling in his chair while he played boogie-woogie inspired selections from his storied career, Dr. John’s performance was simple and sparse, yet completely spectacular.

Using a black baby-grand piano as his primary means of communication, Dr. John acted as the evening’s spiritual guru, guiding his supportive backing trio of accomplished New Orleans musicians. Offering sixteen selections from his catalogue, including several choice covers, the set list ran the gamut of styles, ranging from the New Orleans R&B of "Now That You Got Me" to the standard balladry of "Irene." Dipping into his Duke Ellington repository early on, Dr. John also polished off "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore" and "On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks," two cuts from his millennium tribute album Duke Elegant, perhaps the evening’s most enjoyable numbers. While his bandmates crafted a minimalist slightly funky backdrop, Dr. John delivered almost spoken word covers, using his piano to provide underling emphasis instead of lead instrumentation. Rambling poetically with his raspy voice, he also briefly discussed his rearranged covers, joking that if he changed them enough his audience wouldn’t recognize his flawed interpretations.

But despite his various musical costumes, Dr. John still played up his own persona throughout his two-hour long, single set show. Sporting a cumbersome coffee colored jacket and decorating his piano with a single ceramic skull, he still dresses like a Rocky Horror Picture Show groupie. Evoking the spirit of his neighboring Mardi Gras Indians, he also implored guerilla dance tactics, abruptly asking theater management to turn the lights on twice throughout Saturday’s show in order to engage his lethargic audience. A natural entertainer, Dr. John’s spunk invigorated his collard audience, culminating with an audience participated Congo line during Harold Dejan’s "It Ain’t My Fault."

Capping off his concert with a quick encore, Dr. John slowly exited stage right, while his trio played a brief, awkward, jazz outro. Like the closing credits of a movie, their jam felt misplaced, but remained engrained in audience members’ minds. Detaching his performance abilities from his persona, the keyboardist almost seemed unnecessary, as his group continued his groove without piano. In fact, his bandmates unearthed the evening’s funkiest beats while the keyboardist limped offstage. But without Dr. John’s jittery presence, the trio seemed like any other jazz-funk combo – not a carefully composed spectacle.

Husky and slightly wrinkled, Dr. John doesn't have the energy to invigorate a Bonnaroo size audience, even if he did provide the festival's name. But each jagged hand motion and quirky vocal line the entertainer accented seemed so real, so rebellious, that his subtle spunk broke free from the venue's museum straightjacket. Strangely enough, SUNY Purchase's cocktail setting is a perfect venue for his current repertoire. Like a piece of art, Dr. John appears proper and framed, but is at heart a truly creative entity.

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