It’s been nearly two decades since Dr. John took to a Gotham stage without a backing band — a lull that melted away as soon as he settled down behind the grand piano at this well-appointed venue. At this, the first night of a two-week solo stand, the man who took the stage wasn’t the psychedelically inclined “Night Tripper” or the roof-raising big-band boogie-master. This was a rare sighting of Mac Rebennack, the New Orleans gadfly and irascible keeper of the boogie-woogie flame.
The singer-pianist’s repertoire would suggest that he’s a traditionalist through and through, but the manner in which he reinvented chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “Goodnight Irene” exposed an iconoclastic streak as wide as the Mississippi itself. The latter tune in particular — offered up, in typical Rebennack fashion, midway through the set — took some bracing turns, replacing the now-requisite sentimentality with the darkness Leadbelly intended it to have.
Just as those songs were laced with foreboding minor chords and bolts of right-hand thunder, pieces that showcased the good Doctor’s bawdy humor leaned toward terpsichorean lightness. “Hen Layin’ Rooster,” a knotty-but-nice maze of barnyard lust, practically bounced off the stage in follow-the-bouncing-ball fashion, while the shaggy-dog tale “Cabbagehead” had the audience guffawing at every telegraphed punchline.
While a goodly amount of the 90-minute perf was given over to bona fide party music, there were interludes of undeniable elegance rife with refined solos belying Dr. John’s chuckling self-assessment that “I have a reputation for lousing up everybody’s songs.” His take on the Duke Ellington obscurity “Wrong Side” was particularly plangent thanks to an affably rickety vocal rasp and an off-kilter arrangement.
Perf built to a rollicking close, with a spate of what the singer described as his “critter songs” — like the wobbly “Dog” — and a loping medley of “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Big Chief” that transformed the swank surroundings of Au Bar into a little slice of New Orleans’ Third Ward.
Dr. John will perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles on June 12.