Like a seasoned college professor, pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, and impresario Dr. John, a.k.a. Malcolm John Rebennack, reads his audiences carefully, gauging their level of interest and enthusiasm, adjusting his shows accordingly.
Given that his Friday, March 23, show at Patriot Theater in Trenton is a co-bill with Louisiana native pianist Henry Butler, an old friend, and the Rebirth Brass Band, some other associates of his from the Crescent City’s 9th Ward, Dr. John should be sufficiently inspired, based on the strength of the opening acts.
At a recent show in Red Bank, Dr. John did something he never does. He delivered some political commentary on his hometown of New Orleans, post-Katrina. Talk to Crescent City natives who have been displaced elsewhere, or still have managed to find some form of suitable housing in greater New Orleans, and they will all tell you the same thing: the local, state, and federal response to the Katrina flooding has been painfully slow. In Red Bank the good doctor expressed his feelings openly: “Right after Katrina, I was a little pissed off at the federal government, the state government, and the city government! And guess what, after all this time, I’m even more pissed off at all of ‘em!”
Dr. John, now 66, is a veteran road musician, studio session player, and recording artist in his own right. His first album, “Gris Gris,” was released in 1968 on the Atlantic label through the good graces of Sonny and Cher, who were making a movie and gave him their leftover studio time. Atlantic Records was co-founded by Jerry Wexler, Herb Abramson, and Ahmet Ertegun, who died in December at age 83, after a bad fall backstage at Bill Clinton’s birthday party at the Beacon Theater.
Dr. John’s initial experiment in voodoo-rock was a hit on college radio and on then-emerging underground FM stations. He continued in a blues-rock vein for several years, releasing “Remedies” and “Sun, Moon and Herbs” in 1970 and 1971. By 1973, he had a huge pop radio hit with “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and his career as a touring musician was launched. Through savvy management, Dr. John has continued his career, and he attributes much of his success to having a good booking agency and annual performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
His aunt taught him the fundamentals of piano. In a 1990s interview he said that while growing up in the Crescent City in the late 1940s and 1950s, “My Aunt Dotti Mae and Uncle John used to have jam sessions at their house a lot. My aunt would play piano and my uncle would play bass. A lot of musicians used to come over. Everybody would get to be feeling pretty good.”
He added guitar as an instrument during that time and later performed as a guitarist with the bands around New Orleans. He says two of his teachers were studio musicians, and through them, “I started subbing around on recording sessions.”
Dr. John’s recent albums include “Mercenary,” the songs of Johnny Mercer, and “Duke Elegant,” both for Blue Note Records. Both albums offer up fresh, innovative arrangements on classic and obscure Mercer and Ellington tunes. During his set on March 23, he will run through tunes that have become emblematic of New Orleans music, including “Iko, Iko,” “Junko Pardner,” and “Mardi Gras Day,” all popularized by his piano-playing mentor, Professor Longhair, who died in 1976.
At Patriot Theater, the “good doctor,” as he is often called, will be accompanied by guitarist John Fohl, drummer Herman Ernest III, and bassist David Barrard. Together, they call themselves Dr. John and the Lower 911, a reference to the Lower 9th ward of New Orleans, where several of his backing musicians are from.
Louisiana native Henry Butler, a blind pianist, singer, and songwriter who was educated at a school for the blind in Baton Rouge, spent many happy and productive years in New Orleans. His recordings for Basin Street Records in the city have earned him critical acclaim and a touring base around the U.S., Europe, and Canada. After Katrina, Butler took what few possessions he had and relocated to Boulder, Colorado, where he has been based since. Fortunately, his career was not wiped out by Katrina, as has been the case with so many other New Orleans musicians who make their living primarily playing in Crescent City clubs and festivals.
The Rebirth Brass Band, led by tuba player Phil Frazier, will be a treat for fans of jazz and blues in this area, who don’t get to hear much brass band music in these parts. Frazier’s bandmates include Derrick Shezbie, Shamar Allen, and Glen Andrews on trumpets, Stafford Agee and Herb Stevens on trombones, Keith Frazier on bass drum, and Derrick Tabb on snare drum. The band freely mixes up their styles in the course of a set, from funk to blues to pioneering rock ‘n’ roll tunes, all within a brass band context.
Dr. John, Henry Butler, Rebirth Brass Band, Friday, March 23, 8 p.m., Patriot Theater, Trenton War Memorial. $25 to $42. 609-984-8400.