Dr. John says that he has 180 songs in the band book

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By Steve Newton

You learn pretty quickly as a music writer not to put too much faith in recording artists’ bios. Once in a while, though, the proclamations heard in those promotional sheets actually turn out to be true.

Take the opening line of the current PR blurb for Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John: “Dr. John proudly stands along side of Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino as one of New Orleans’ all-time distinctive voices.”

Considering the subject’s unique singing style–which resembles a dry, gravelly cackle–that’s not an overblown claim. But does Rebennack feel it’s an accurate assessment?

“Well, I guess it is to whoever wrote the bio,” he drawls, over the phone from his home in upstate New York. “I hate bios. I think they oughtta be bio-degradable. But that’s just my head.”

More than what any calculated hype might relate, the import of Dr. John’s contribution to popular music can be judged by the calibre of the people he’s performed with over the years, as both a solo artist and a first-call L.A. session player. They include the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger, but those names don’t even arise when Rebennack is asked who he’s most proud to have worked with.

“Maybe Joe Tex,” he notes, “Joe Turner. Maybe Ray Charles. Maybe Aretha Franklin. Maybe… I don’t know. When I was young I got to play with a lotta people, and when you’re young it all hits ya harder. Marvin Gaye. Charles Brown. You know, workin’ with Professor Longhair meant a lot to me.”

Rebennack’s relationships with the music world’s elite continue with his next album, as yet untitled, which includes appearances by Mavis Staples, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, and B. B. King. The singer isn’t quite sure when the CD will be out–“All I do is make records; somebody else does that stuff”–but it’ll be roughly three decades after the Allen Toussaintí‚ ­produced In the Right Place, which spawned the funky hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time”.

Prior to that album’s release, Rebennack had a feeling it would be the one to establish him as a solo artist.

Although the 62-year-old musician can’t recall the last time he played Vancouver–“I have no concept of anything to do with time”–he is definitely booked to play two shows at the Yale Hotel on Monday (March 8), after a direct flight from the Virgin Islands. Hopefully that sojourn in the sun will have left his famously raw vocals in good shape.

“I ain’t like no Enrico Caruso that’s gotta worry about it too much,” he replies with a chuckle.

Not much seems to worry the veteran Big Easy player these days. The least of his concerns is what he’ll be playing on any given night.

“Listen, we got like 180 songs in the band book,” he relates. “Every night I just grab some tunes, write up a set list, and that’s what we’re doin’ that night–keeps me on my toes, keeps the band on their toes.”

One thing you can count on is Rebennack’s wild keyboard work, which features, but is not limited to, piano.

“I might play some organ if they got one,” he reckons. “If they don’t, we’ll just go with the piano. I sure ain’t luggin’ a guitar around. I tell ya–it’s so much trouble.”

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