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Pop: Matt black does nothing for the Doctor's showcase




THEY CAN'T all be great, I suppose. In the course of the last half decade, Dr. John has played some of the most satisfying concerts I've ever seen - especially the 1996 season at Ronnie Scott's that provided the basis of his Trippin' Live album. This, alas, wasn't one of them. The material was the same as ever, and the Doctor's band as tight and flexible as usual, but there was some indefinable element lacking from tonight's show.

In large part, it's the fault of a venue whose shabby matt-black decor seeks to drag everything down to scuzzy indie level, destroying the warmth and intimacy necessary to bring Dr John's New Orleans funk to its fullest bloom. The place just lacks class, and the Doctor is a very classy act.

The problem was most noticeable on a version of "I Walk On Guilded Splinters" which bore the scars of constant attention. When other artists are forced to play their early material over and over, the songs tend to get faster and faster - the Ramones famously boasted of how much shorter their set would get from show to show - before eventually getting demoted to a token appearance as part of a medley. With Dr John, the opposite is the case: "Guilded Splinters" now comes prefaced with dollops of dreary jazz noodling before resolving into an achingly slow version of the familiar swamp- voodoo riff.

It sounds enervated to the point of exhaustion, barely able to drag itself out of the bayou; and although the band strive to establish atmosphere with the requisite spooky percussion and vocal noises, their efforts are futile in such impersonal surroundings. At one point, the Doctor gets up from his piano to shuffle around, and the guitarist takes the world's least interesting solo. As much fun as unravelling a ball of string, it kills the song off completely.

The more uptempo numbers such as "Qualified" and "Right Place, Wrong Time" fare better in engaging the audience in a physical relationship with the music; and the easy, rolling gait of "Such A Night" is as amiable as ever. In patches, the Doctor weaves his old magic.

Then he lapses into supper-club mode again with a dismal jazz-blues like "Candy", and the ambience just dissolves away. Ironically, in an actual supper-club environment, the heat and intimacy add an edge which works to the advantage of the funkier material. It is sorely missed here tonight.