THE GRUDGE MATCH: Before the Dr. John show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival began, the crowd was stirring with anticipation. “Do you think he’ll wear his full regalia?” a woman in the row behind me asked. I must have been the only person in the audience who was wondering what the band was going to sound like.
The last time I had seen him, at Jazz Fest, Dr. John’s band turned in a subpar performance and bandleader Sarah Morrow overplayed on the trombone. It was the talk of Jazz Fest and got some highly critical reviews, including one from Keith Spera in the Times-Picayune. My review was published in the June issue of OffBeat. Dr. John had fired his longtime band, the Lower 911, at the end of 2012, but I figured he’d changed band members before and had earned the right to play with whomever he wanted. I interviewed him and Morrow so they could give their side of the story [February issue].
I’ve seen Mac Rebennack as Dr. John well over 100 times dating back to the late ’60s. I’ve seen him on off nights, but I’ve never heard two bad shows in a row so I was optimistic about the Montreal gig. He was terrific, singing as well as I’ve heard him in a long time and playing at the top of his game. The band was almost completely revamped since Jazz Fest (only bassist Dwight Bailey remained) and they kicked hard behind him, particularly drummer Reggie Jackson, who powered the groove with Bailey.
As for Morrow, she cued the band and anchored the backing vocals. Her trombone playing was precise and well-ordered in the arrangements, providing good fills and colorations throughout, and she kept her solos tight and well-focused. At the end, the new band members were announced, but I couldn’t catch all their names over the applause so I went backstage in order to find out who they were and give them proper credit.
The only band member I saw backstage was Morrow. I went up to her, turned on my tape recorder and asked if she would give me the names of the band members.
“You’re John Swenson?” she responded. “I want a word with you. You got a fucking problem with me, or what?”
“No,” I answered, “not at all. And I thought you were great tonight.”
“Were you even at Jazz Fest?”
“Really? I don’t believe it. I think you listened to other people’s shit, who have their own personal problems with whatever.”
“I understand,” I responded, trying to reason with her. “Listen, I wrote a very…”
“First of all,” she cut me off, “We opened up to you, we trusted you, even after you fucking made base, false comments that weren’t even true. Y’know, which is so uncool. And we still spoke to you. Only to have you pull that kind of shit! Well, if you were really, really being objective? I have a hard time believing that.”
“Well, I thought the show was great tonight and I really…”
“It was the same fucking show.”
I was going to point out that the band was almost completely different, and that this show was in a concert hall, not an open-air festival, but she kept going.
“Same…fucking….show! I just want you to know that. You can say that you stink, but just remember—just remember—that it all affects Dr. John. You can say whatever you want about me, but it still affects him. OK? In whatever little world there is.”
“All I need is the names of the guys in the band, if you don’t mind.”
“I think you should talk to Dr. John about the names of the band members.”
No chance of that while I was being wrangled by security guards intent on getting me away from Morrow. I smiled and raised my palm in a gesture of submission, and as I was beginning to be escorted out of the backstage area, Morrow came at me again.
“If you were objective and honest instead of pulling the stuff you pulled, it would have been cool. To say lies, and then not to stand up and say that you fucked up? Is not cool.”
I think I have the right to know exactly what lies she’s accusing me of. And what were the “base” comments I supposedly made? Everything I wrote about Sarah Morrow and Dr. John is on the record. I have never told lies or said anything base about them, publically or privately. So, what is going on with Dr. John right now that’s causing paranoid, unprofessional reactions to legitimate critical questions?