It is Thursday, June 13, 2002, around 9 p.m. I’m standing in the sound booth at the back of The Handlebar on Stone Avenue, looking out at a crowd of about 500 people. We are all waiting on Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John Creaux, the Night Tripper, to walk onstage. His band, a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, are all two or three decades younger than the 60-ish Dr. John.
It has been, to say the least, a trying day. I’m in my second year of working in the office at The Handlebar, and one of my jobs is to handle backstage arrangements for the bands and to provide “backline,” meaning the instruments the bands need for their shows but are too heavy or expensive to take on tour with them.
My day has been spent trying to find enough booze to fill the band’s backstage requirements and trying to haul a massive, rickety Hammond B-3 organ from an instrument shop in Easley into downtown Greenville on a trailer hooked to the back of a 1993 Hyundai Excel. It’s hot, the sound and lighting are not to the band’s liking, and the damned Hammond organ isn’t working.
In short, none of it has been easy, and despite my love of Dr. John’s music — his rippling, soulful, New-Orleans-to-the-bone, boogie-woogie-inspired piano playing; that cracked growl of a voice; the way he bent every chord and note to his own whimsical will — all I’m thinking about is sneaking out after a couple of songs and going home.
The band starts up a swaggering, lopsided, midtempo groove, not unlike a stylish drunk trying to walk down a crowded Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. And out walks the man himself as his band settles into the funky groove of “Iko Iko,” dressed to the nines in an ultra-sharp suit, his perfectly matched hat turned just so. Actually, he’s not walking; he’s strutting, with an elegant cane, toward his piano stool. He sits down and waits for the perfect moment in between beats; then he rips off a brief, six-note phrase on his piano, leans into the mic, and lets go with that growl that is unmistakably his and his alone.
I’m not going anywhere, and I know it.
For the next two hours, six decades of New Orleans soul, funk, rock, and jazz pour from his fingers. He takes on Louis Jordan’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” at a near-funereal pace, and it’s gorgeous. He turns his own 1969 psychedelic-voodoo stomp “Walk on Guilded Splinters” into a near-10-minute workout balance on a tightrope of piano, bass, and drums.
His biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” comes midshow and gets the crowd on its feet, and despite the Hammond organ’s stubborn refusal to work properly, he still seems utterly in command and utterly nonchalant about it as the crowd sings, “I was in the right place/ But it must have been the wrong time,” back to him over the song’s funky riff.
There’s one song, toward the end of the show, called “Soulful Warrior,” that just about sums up this combination of witch doctor, street hustler, and encyclopedia of New Orleans music that Rebennack spent his life creating. His stone-faced cool occasionally cracks for a quick laugh and an “all right” in between songs, but for the most part, he is inscrutable.
On this night, or “Such a Night,” as the man himself might call it, he is part mystic, part ultra-confident trickster, part reincarnation of Professor Longhair, and all Big Easy cool, a dark kind of calm that hints at a lot of menace just underneath the surface.
The next day, someone asked me how the show was, and I will always remember my reply. I thought of all the stress and chaos of the day, and then I thought of the great Dr. John sitting at that piano, and I said, “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Those were my immediate thoughts when I heard about the passing of Dr. John at age 77; the world is a lot less cool, and a lot less mischievous fun, than it was when the doctor was in.