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Just what the good Doctor ordered

By SEAN DALY
Published September 24, 2005


TAMPA - Voodoo-boogie king Dr. John is a tireless troubadour, a growly piano mystic who has spent a good chunk of his 64 years rocking on the road. But no matter where the Night Tripper may roam, he always makes sure to bring the creole swing of his native New Orleans with him.

These days, he might as well be a real doctor.

Call it therapy, call it a pep talk, call it a rousing homage to a city in need of saving: Dr. John's emotional one-man show at the Tampa Theatre Friday was an inspiring, 90-minute history lesson in the melting-pop grooves of his great Crescent City. And in typical Bourbon Street style, he turned pervasive sadness into a rousing celebration of the town's enduring strength.

With its creepy gothic charms and shadow-casting lamps, the spectacular Tampa venue just might be the perfect place to host the wild man born Mac Rebennack. In fact, if you include the skull sitting on Dr. John's long, black piano - and don't you know dem bones were staring straight into the energetic crowd of 776 - the night had the feel of a seance, a bittersweet connection to Mardi Gras spirits that could use a little company these days.

Dressed in a smooth blue suit and black fedora, the good doctor slowly strutted out to his piano, leaning on his trademark walking stick, and looking very much like the world-weary bluesmen he's always idolized. But if he walked delicately, he played hot and fast and funky, opening with a particularly greasy cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.

He dipped into his bag of hits, including a slow-burning Right Place Wrong Time, which he introduced by saying, "Old-timers don't get to be old-timers by being no chumps." He gave jazzy, ragtime bounce to such standards as a bittersweet Blue Skies and a frisky Makin' Whoopee. He aired out cuts from the excellent 2004 album N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or D'Udda; as a nice touch, the skull was bathed in a red glow during the grinding Maria Laveau. He even dusted off a couple of his "Cousin Joe's critter songs," including the bawdy Hen Layin' Rooster and an even bawdier improvisational stomp with the increasingly menacing chorus of "How come my dog don't bark when you come around?"

But the biggest applause was saved for the sing-along numbers seemingly birthed in the booze-soaked and gumbo-rich streets of the French Quarter.

"Now I'm gonna play a Professor Longhair song," he said before quick-fingering the first few bars of Tipitina, the unofficial anthem of bayou country. "The guy taught me whatever it is I know on the piano."

Dr. John never provided somber between-song banter about hurricanes or cries for help. Then again, he didn't have to.

A dirgelike version of When the Saints Go Marching In was almost too painfully pretty to hear. And a subtly reworked Sweet Home New Orleans was a boogie-down shot of defiance. He closed his eyes and stretched out those last, vital words: "We'll sure come back twice as strong."

We should listen to the Doctor. He knows what's good for us.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic

[Last modified September 24, 2005, 00:59:07]


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