The left hand is thunder, thumping so hard there’s no need for a drummer. The right hand is lightning, tripping across the keys, spinning out golden triplets and silvery runs that can make a piano fan deliriously happy. And the voice is steeped in grits and gravy, as funky and down-home as you please.
They all belong to Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. All by Hisself, the first in a planned series of archival releases, is truth-in-packaging, taken from two 1986 performances in New York City. It’s just the man and a piano — anything else would have been superfluous.
The 17 songs here are a history lesson in New Orleans music. Chris Kenner (“Sick and Tired,” “Something You Got”), Earl King (“Let’s Make a Better World”) and Huey Smith (four songs in a medley) all get their due. Doc Pomus shows up, co-writing “Average Kind of Guy,” about a fellow who’s “low on luck and high on pills,” and complains “I love the girls that I can’t get.” Chestnuts “Stagger Lee,” “Junco Partner,” and “Iko Iko” are here too, as are the Doctor’s “Such a Night” and “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
His playing echoes every great Crescent City pianist. Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino — at one time or another Dr. John sounds like all of them. But he’s more than a mimic. As the liner notes remind us, “there ain’t a lyric on this album Mac ain’t been to.”
An extra treat is a 22-minute DVD, Mac Sings, Plays & Talks About New Orleans Music … . It’s more truth-in-packaging, as he does just that, interrupted every so often by a vaguely irritating, dorky reporter. But that’s redundant.
Vic Doucette is the copy editor at Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].