Dr. John has been my medicine man since junior year of college. From the moment I heard him growl, “Hot steppin’ mama keep on foxing witcha little foxy self,” on “Desitively Bonaroo,” the spell was cast. Gris Gris was the soundtrack to many a night of eerie cosmic vibrations, Jim Beam, and L&M Lights. The rough magic that surrounds his music is so thick you can literally smell it as the turntable spins. His latest record, Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, recaptured some of the elusive smell and feel of his best records.
Suffice it to say, there was a lot to be excited about when he sashayed to the stage at the Palace wearing a purple suede suit with the hat to match and a long, striped feather tucked into the hat’s band for style.
It was billed as an evening of “Spirituals to Funk,” a twin bill featuring the equally legendary Blind Boys of Alabama. Dr. John’s bedside manner was a mix of frosty and stone cold. He said nary a word the entire night but to introduce the Blind Boys and his band at the end of the show. But it’s hard to argue with the doctor when the medicine is still working. Few musicians’ musical prowess and voice have aged with more dignity than the Doctor’s.
The beginning of the show focused primarily on material from Locked Down. “Revolution” and “Big Shot” boasted plenty of swagger to match that sharp suit. The iconoclastic lyrics and fat trombone line of “Revolution” was all the excuse some of the crowd needed to quit their cushy seats and stomp their feet.
After a solid 20 minutes of Dr. John, the Blind Boys of Alabama filed onstage sporting sunglasses and matching suits with their right hand placed on the shoulder of the man in front of them. While the Blind Boys were onstage, Dr. John acted as musical director and bandleader. The unofficial leader of the Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, greeted the crowd with a short introduction and made it clear that “the Blind Boys like a noisy crowd!” The audience obliged as they spun out rolling renditions of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” replete with slide trombone and slide guitar, and “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Dr. John’s next set was the crowd-pleasing portion of the concert that featured hits and a few deep cuts. “The Right Place” gave the crowd an important touchstone for the evening, while a laid-back version of “Mos’ Scocious” scratched the nerd itch of all the record collectors present. The Blind Boys emerged from backstage once more to the tune of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” before launching into a full-on revival with Carter climbing offstage, aided by a guide, to stir the crowd.
The quality of music and musicians was exactly what you would expect from legends like Dr. John and the Blind Boys, but the evening had the feeling of a long medley. When Dr. John stood up from the piano after “Big Chief” and grabbed his walking stick—a magic staff with beads and feathers hanging from its grip—the clock read 9:50 and it was clear that he was not making another trip onstage for an encore. “Spirituals to Funk” was music for the spirit, no doubt, but it lacked that smell—that heady mix of incense, cigar smoke, cumin, and sizzling shrimp and beans.