News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
On Call With The Doctor
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Like gumbo and Mardi Gras, Dr. John is one of New Orleans’ most popular creations.
He’s been carrying the city’s torch since the 1960s, when he released his first collection of funky, Cajun-flavored blues songs. A half-century later, he’s still going strong, with a new album under his belt and a popular fall tour—including upcoming shows at George Mason University, Christopher Newport University, and the University of Richmond—that stretches until the end of the month.
The tour also features Blind Boys of Alabama, another bluesy act with strong ties to the South. The two groups began working together in March, when Dr. John hosted a tribute to Louis Armstrong at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Blind Boys of Alabama opened and closed the performance, with Dr. John adding some jazzy piano accompaniment.
The Louis Armstrong show was a hit. Looking to keep the collaborative spirit alive, Dr. John invited Blind Boys of Alabama on the road.
“I’ve been having a ball,” he said earlier this week, speaking in his signature slow, smoky rasp.
“They play their show, we play ours and then we bring them back up. There’s certain songs we always do together, like “If I Had a Hammer” and “People Get Ready,” but it’s not exactly the same show every time. We just do whatever we’re gonna do.”
Doing whatever he wants to do has been Dr. John’s M.O. for years. Although he scored a hit single in the early 1970s with “Right Place Wrong Time,” he’s always been an odd character, dressing in outrageous outfits—purple blazers, thick gold chains, feathered fedoras—and dishing up his own brand of “voodoo music,” a genre-bending stew of jazz, blues, R&B and psychedelic rock.
If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for popular music, it’s because it isn’t. Dr. John is too bizarre, too unique to ever become a mainstream artist. For those who can’t get enough of his voodoo music, though—including Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach—Dr. John will never go out of style.
A longtime fan, Auerbach volunteered to produce Dr. John’s latest album, “Locked Down.” Released earlier this year, it earned some of the best reviews of Dr. John’s career, thanks to a steamy, sweaty mix of horns, electric guitar and boogie-woogie piano. Auerbach even spiced up Dr. John’s musical gumbo with some African influences.
“Musical flavors go all kinda ways,” Dr. John said. “Dan brought in a drummer who lived in Ethiopia and was hip to a lot of Afrobeat stuff, which I really liked. Dan is open to a lot of different music, so we were able to take some songs and twist them around, you know?”
Dr. John says he’s proud of the album, but he doesn’t spend much time listening to it. At 71, he’s still a road warrior, and his focus is on the current tour.
“I never get a chance to really listen to the records I’ve done,” he admitted. “I’m out here on the road doing other stuff. Every day is spent driving and writing a set for the gig that night, and I take my time doing that.”
He’s gonna do whatever he’s gonna do.
What: Dr. John & The Lower 911 Band with Blind Boys of Alabama
When: Saturday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Mason Pond Drive, Fairfax; Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Carpenter Theater, 600 E. Grace St., Richmond.
Cost: In Fairfax: $23-$46. In Richmond: $34-$42.
Andrew Leahey, like tobacco and ham, is one of Virginia’s most popular creations.