Edinburgh Festival '99: Jazz Festival - Passion in the darkness

DR JOHN QUEEN'S HALL

"EVERYTHING WE play is old" growls the old man seated at the piano, taking in the audience through narrowed eyes and imparting the information as if it were a warning for the younger members to get out or risk being bored to death. But no one moves. We are already approaching the end of the Edinburgh jazz festival and at least three generations of Dr John acolytes, from middle-age beardies to wide-eyed pre-teens, are waiting expectantly for him to weave his dark spell.

Whether it is the muddy instrumentals, the haunted-house percussion or the shameless sleaze of his piano solos, the Doctor (otherwise known as Mac Rubberneck) has earned the title "prince of voodoo" with his seductive blend of New Orleans funk, blues and rock. While that moniker might seem a little overwrought, he is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Despite his increasing decrepitude, Dr John's thick, gravelly voice commands instant attention and the combination of a horned staff, a mud-coloured jacket and a Panama hat affords him a look that is somewhere between a goat herder and a visiting dignitary.

It is this air of authority that has had fellow musicians clamouring to work with him. In the early days it was Mick Jagger and Eric and now Supergrass and Ocean Colour Scene are just a few of the upstarts hoping that Dr John will add some seasoned authenticity to their shiny new careers. It's true that every whisker - not to mention that fetid-looking ponytail - reeks of rich life experience. In the middle of one song he goes into a spoken-word piece that involves a broken ankle, a broken home and eventually a broken mind. Whether or not it was fictional is anybody's guess, but it is delivered with enough intimacy and passion to make you believe every word.

And sure enough, there are some percussive sequences that raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

As Dr John shakes his hairy maracas and shuffles around the stage with his eyes looking skyward, some pan pipes come seemingly out of nowhere, imbuing the Queen's Hall with a serene yet ghostly ambience.

The arrival of English trombonist Chris Barber lightens the proceedings and Dr John's reputation as a dark magician is belied by a series of light- hearted numbers that take in jazz, mambo, boogie and ragtime. One track even ends with a refrain from "The Entertainer".

His Seventies hit "Right Place, Right Time" gets people off their seats and into the aisles and, aside from an interminably boring guitar solo, the show builds up into a Mardi Gras-style shakedown. In true curmudgeonly style, it is only fitting that the Doctor leaves the stage without a smile.

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