There are a lot of interesting things to know about Dr. John. Did you know the name of the Bonnaroo Music Festival came from his album Desitively Bonnaroo? OK, that's an easy one. But did you also know that he gave a "love potion" to Eric Clapton when Clapton was love-struck with George Harrison's wife, Patti, back in the "Layla" days?
Or did you know that the muppet Dr. Teeth is based on him? Or that his debut album, the voodoo psychedelic masterpiece Gris-Gris, was recorded using free studio time that had been earmarked for Sonny & Cher?
Of course, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John, aka The Night Tripper, is best known for his music, including being one of the finest pianists that New Orleans has produced. He has released more than 30 albums bookended by the aforementioned Gris-Gris and last year's wonderful Locked Down, produced by Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys, and on Friday night at the Granada Theatre he drew from this fabulous songbook and more.
The Doctor looked and sounded sharp, wearing a pinstripe suit and fedora adorned with voodoo regalia, and had two skulls on his grand piano. He was accompanied by a relatively new but slammin' band, namely Sarah Morrow soldiering through an apparent sprained ankle to play some thrilling trombone and act as musical director, Kevin Turner on guitar, Dwight Bailey on bass, Bobby Floyd on organ and Reggie Jackson on drums.
Dr. John's early voodoo-inspired music was nicely represented by "Walk on Gilded Splinters" from Gris-Gris, played with a cool, deep groove and featuring a trippy trombone solo by Morrow as The Doctor played a tambourine and what looked like goat toenails.
From the new Locked Down album, which has been hailed as a welcome return to the grittier Dr. John of old, came "Ice Age," "Revolution" and "Big Shot" with the particularly fitting chorus "Ain't never was, never gonna be / Another big shot like me."
Other Dr. John classics were on the program, including well-loved songs like "Right Place, Wrong Time" with some funky Nord synth playing, "On a Mardi Gras Day" which closed the main set and featured hot solos from the band, and the encore "Such a Night," which had couples dancing in the box seats on both sides of the theater.
A notable cover was the slow Ray Charles love song "Tell Me You'll Wait for Me," which had Dr. John in lounge singer mode without sounding cheesy, and included a particularly fine piano solo. I also swear that later on he played a bit of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life," but with the lyrics "You're riding high in April, shot down in May" changed to "Strung out in January, still strung out in May."
And from his New Orleans roots came the kickoff Louis Armstrong song "Do You Call That a Buddy?," Lead Belly's "Good Night, Irene" and Earl King's "Let the Good Times Roll" for which Dr. John showed that he's also a fine guitarist.
Which leads us to another interesting thing about Dr. John. Did you know that he lost partial use of the ring finger on his left hand when he was shot defending a friend in a dispute, which led him to give up guitar and focus on piano? The rest, as they say, is history.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.