Dr. John didn’t go to Jazz Fest this year, but Jazz Fest came to him. Many of the festival’s key players participated in a gala tribute to Dr. John (with top prices going at $500 per seat) at the Saenger Theater, an event shepherded by Blue Note president Don Was, who served as musical director and played bass through much of the show.
The event was filmed and recorded for presumed DVD release and while it was well-supplied with celebrity names, Was cannily ensured the appropriate New Orleans content by relying on George Porter, Jr. to stock the house band with the right local players. Especially during the second half of set one, when Porter took over for Was on bass, the core band was composed of the classic lineup of Porter’s Running Partners—Porter on bass, Brint Anderson on guitar, John Gros on B-3 organ and Mark Mullins on trombone.
Mullins also wrote the horn charts for the whole event, a monumental effort that certainly will draw attention to his brilliance as an arranger. Khris Royal on saxophone and Bobby Campo on trumpet were the rest of the section and Porter’s sidekick from the Funky Meters, Brian Stoltz, was the other guitarist. Chuck Leavell, who toured with Dr. John back in the beginning of his career, played piano, Kenny Aronoff played drums, Irma Thomas sang, and the McCrary Sisters provided great backing vocals.
Mac himself was mostly a spectator, leaving the stage after opening the proceedings with surprise guest Bruce Springsteen for a version of “Right Place Wrong Time.” Springsteen, whose timing has never been off, brought his earnest delivery to a decidedly unusual reading of this lyric. Mac returned once more during the first set to accompany Aaron Neville on a beautiful “Please Send Me Someone To Love.”
The rest of the set consisted of a whirlwind of great cameos including Anders Osborne and Bill Kreutzmann dealing “R U 4 Real,” Allen Toussaint taking a solo turn on his own “Life,” Tab Benoit killing “Stack A Lee” and Dave Malone singing “Good Night Irene.” The highlights of the set were Cyril Neville’s transcendent version of “Indian Red” and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux finishing it off with “Big Chief.”
Widespread Panic took over the stage at the start of set two, playing a powerful rendition of “Familiar Reality.” The set wandered during turns by celebrity musicians including Jimmie Vaughan, Ryan Bingham and John Fogerty, but Warren Haynes (“You Lie”), John Boutte (“Let’s Make a Better World”) and Mavis Staples (“Lay My Burden Down”) were spectacular. Mac returned to close it out with “Peace Brother Peace,” “New Island Soiree,” “Rain,” “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” and “Such A Night.”
The whole cast took the stage for an encore that finished with “Iko Iko.”