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Jazzfest Day One: Battle of the Dr. John bands

April 26, 2013

The news out of New Orleans in January was surprising. At the end of 2012, the year Locked Down became his first top-40 album since 1973 and won a Grammy for Blues Album of the Year, Dr. John (a.k.a. Mac Rebennack) fired his longtime band, the Lower 911, and managers. Both the singer-pianist and his former musicians made public statements that it had been an amicable split, but rumors claimed it wasn’t so.

The split played out in public on Friday, the opening day of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, when bassist David Barard (with Rebennack since the ‘70s) and drummer Raymond Weber backed up bluesman John Mooney in the early afternoon and Rebennack unveiled his new band in the late afternoon. The former rhythm section clearly had the better of it.

The lone holdover from the previous band, trombonist Sarah Morrow, had a greatly expanded role in the new group, called the Night Trippers. Morrow wore a sky-blue jacket much like Rebennack’s and stood at the front of the stage, closer to the audience than the star. She acted as music director, emcee, harmony singer and showcased soloist. Morrow, who spent two years in the Ray Charles Band before joining Rebennack, is not a bad trombonist or backing singer, but her solos are pedestrian, her hip-hop-style introduction was cheesy, and her musical arrangements are flawed.

The opening medley of “Iko Iko” and “Shoo Fly Marches On,” New Orleans classics that should play to Rebennack’s strengths, was marred by overwrought rock guitar and a rhythm section that seemed to be playing as separate individuals, not as a tight unit. On “Revolution” from Locked Down, Rebennack played simple chords on an electric keyboard and let Morrow add an unnecessary solo.

It was as if Rebennack reached the wrong conclusions from his collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on last year’s album. Rebennack seems to think it sold so well because Auerbach is a rock star, when it actually worked because the Black Key
understands blues fundamentals. By allowing Morrow to add arena-rock gestures and show-biz trappings to his set, Rebennack has taken a step backward rather than forward.

His former rhythm section, however, seems to be flourishing in Mooney’s band. Mooney grew up in Rochester, where he took guitar lessons from the aging blues legend Son House. Mooney then moved to New Orleans, where he fused his teacher’s Delta bottleneck-guitar stylings with the rambunctious, second-line rhythms of Louisiana. Barard and Weber reinforced that syncopation instinctively and muscularly. They were joined by conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, who used to play with Professor Longhair, and keyboardist Bob Andrews of Graham Parker & the Rumour.

Mooney has always been a criminally underrated blues performer, but he sounded better than ever with this all-star band behind him. Whether playing traditional blues numbers like “Trouble in Mind,” which he dedicated to the recently deceased Richie Havens, or his own compositions like “U Tol’ Me,” Mooney’s big, disciplined voice and his slashing slide-guitar work created twin melodic lines on top while funky band behind him stirred up the bottom. He would have been even more impressive if the notoriously bad sound at the Jazzfest’s Blues Tent hadn’t rendered most of the lyrics indecipherable. It wasn’t just Mooney’s set either; an earlier set by the legendary, 88-year-old blues pianist Henry Gray suffered the exact same problems.