JAZZ / House calls: Phil Johnson on MAC Rebennack at the Jazz Cafe

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The Independent Culture
MAC Rebennack has been a barely living legend for a quarter of a century now, and it looks like it. The alter ego of psychedelic New Orleans voodoo prince Dr John the Night Tripper, he first entered British consciousness by way of a cover version of 'Walk on Gilded Splinters' in 1969. Today, he's like a late picture of Dorian Gray, black beret replacing the jewelled head-dress of the good doctor's glory days.

Apart from the old voodoo walking cane crooked over the mike stand, and a few choice bits of esoteric jewellery, this was clearly a Rebennack rather than a Night Tripper gig. The distinction is worth making: in the old days, when Dr John sprinkled magical gris-gris dust as he played and sang, it wasn't always realised that his creator was a white acolyte of the New Orleans R&B scene of the 1950s who had learned from Professor Longhair and Huey 'Piano' Smith while still a schoolkid. After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, Rebennack joined the expatriate New Orleans community of session musicians and recorded Gris-Gris, his first album. The Dr John concept, named for a 19th- century New Orleans character, was born and Rebennack hit the circuit, backed by a band, a snake-dancer and voodoo drummers.

Now it's just Rebennack, the piano and the Dr John songbook, a walking encyclopaedia of New Orleans music from jazz to funk opening with some expert boogie woogie. Latin-inflected triplets leaping from his fingers like the proverbial fish-a-jumping, Rebennack sounded great but looked tentative. Barking out the vocals in that trademark black-voiced whine, with a bleary-eyed hangdog look - like Zero Mostel or Tom and Jerry's bulldog on a bad day - Rebennack is a deeply serious artist saddled with a repertoire that makes people want to have fun. Even the hits, such as they are, like 'Right Place, Wrong Time' or 'Not Her, Not Her' come across in solo mode like lachrymose laments. Half of the audience stood with eyes closed in spiritual communion, while the other half looked like they thought a conga-line was coming up any minute.

Like the old trouper he is, Rebennack just carried on regardless, getting better and better as the long set progressed. An instrumental version of Ellington's 'In a Sentimental Mood', for example, was heart-stoppingly good. He remained more or less expressionless throughout, a working musician doing his job, no more and no less, and not a trace of gris-gris dust hit the stage. 'I just do what I do,' he told me. 'I'm no hellfire thing, but I do know how to sell a song; I just do it and it's me.' After the gig, he sat in the dressing-room staring into space, smoking a cheroot, not really knowing how great he had been.