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"Twice as Strong"

Dr. John and the Lower 911, Rams Head Tavern, Oct. 10

Lisa Houlgrave with David Herrenbruck

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/17/2007

Most musicians who have been around as long and as prominently as Dr. John hire young kids for their road bands. If you're surrounded by less experienced players, it's easier to dominate the stage--and to keep more money for yourself. But Mac Rebennack, the man who adopted the stage name of Dr. John in 1968, won't go for that. When he came to town, he brought along four musicians who could match him in experience and expertise. The result was that rare geezer concert that needn't rely on nostalgia: So much music was happening right at the moment.

With his bear-claw necklace, shiny gray suit, squirrel-like ponytail, and black straw fedora with a songbird feather in the hatband, the 66-year-old Rebennack had no trouble commanding attention as he gingerly shuffled onto the stage. But with his bandmates challenging him at every turn, he had to fight to keep it. Drummer Herman Ernest and bassist David Barard, who've played with Rebennack in the studio and onstage for years, are both products of the recently obliterated Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. They're masters of the push-and-pull syncopation that defines the city's funk; they have a gift for making you expect a beat to fall in a certain place and then letting it fall just before or just after that. It creates a terrific rhythmic tension.

With a tan slouch hat tilted over his eyes and the sleeves of his gray shirt rolled up, Ernest was the evening's emcee. As Rebennack sat down at a piano covered in woven cloths and African rattles, Ernest shouted, "New Orleans is in the house," and smacked his snare drum as if kicking off a Carnival parade on Napoleon Avenue. It didn't matter that Rebennack began the show with four songs that few knew: "In the Name of You," "I Ate Up the Apple Tree," "Wild Honey," and "I Know What I've Got." This show wasn't about old hits. It was about the way his gravelly baritone was shoved and grabbed by the rhythms churned up by Ernest, Barard, guitarist John Fohl, and Rebennack's own two-fisted piano and organ playing.

Joining the quartet for this East Coast run of dates was guest tenor saxophonist Ronnie Cuber--best known for his baritone work with Horace Silver, Lee Konitz, Eddie Palmieri, and the Mingus Big Band. He and Rebennack drew on those jazz chops for a long, unaccompanied duet that spiraled through substitute chords till Ernest brought the music back to earth with a compact drum figure. It was parade time again, and Cuber fell right in line. Rebennack sang "I Been Hoodood" and then stood up from the piano, dancing with his rattles as the musicians took solos around him. Four songs later, he sang his Katrina song, "Sweet Home, New Orleans," which ended with everyone onstage chanting, "We're gonna be back, twice as strong." It was difficult to doubt them.

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