Dr. John, Charlie Musselwhite, and Keb' Mo' bring the House of Blues tour to town.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

When Dr. John was a kid in 1940s New Orleans—in the years when he was still known as Malcolm Rebennack—playing piano seemed like a hopeless way to make a living.

"That's I think why I started off playing guitar in New Orleans. There were so many bad piano players, I figured I'd never get a job," he says, using "bad" in its traditional hepcat sense. "I had played the piano since I was a little kid...I knew how to play the 'Texas Boogie' when I was a little child. But I could go to the corner of my house and hear the guy playing in the barroom, and he was some scary guy. And it was like that all over New Orleans."

Fifty years later, Dr. John is a pretty scary guy himself, music-wise. In a recording career that stretches from the mid-'60s to his new live album, he has become a living legend of New Orleans boogie-woogie piano, one of a handful of protégés of greats like Professor Longhair and Huey Smith. His music has covered a lot of ground—from psychedelic rock to big band standards—but its roots have always been in the syncopated, rollicking sound of his hometown, the sound he can define only as "fonk."

It's a sound that will fill the Tennessee Theater this Sunday, as part of a stellar triple bill with harmonica wizard Charlie Musselwhite and new-traditionalist bluesman Keb' Mo' on the "House of Blues Presents" tour. Combined with Dr. John's musical gumbo, Musselwhite's sturdy Chicago chugging and Keb' Mo's stripped-down Delta/Memphis stylings promise an evening of blues in its many shades. The Tennessee is one of several small arts venues chosen as tour stops.

"The whole idea of this tour was to bring traditional blues to nontraditional settings," says House of Blues publicist Sharon Liveten. "It brings a new audience to the blues."

In phone interviews, Dr. John and Musselwhite support the claim (Keb' Mo's not talking to reporters this time out). While their styles and backgrounds are very different, the two veterans talk about keeping the music alive—for themselves as well as others—in similar emotional terms.

That Old Black Magic

Dr. John grew up in a city teeming with spidery lore, and he's worked hard over the years to incorporate himself into its mythology and vice-versa. From his pseudonym—taken from a 19th Century New Orleans voodoo doctor who claimed to be a Senegalese prince—to the title of his 1994 autobiography (Under a Hoodoo Moon), he has steeped himself in references to his hometown's mystery and history. But in conversation from a hotel room in Florida, it's clear the New Orleans that Dr. John celebrates in his music and his book in some ways doesn't exist anymore.

His book starts off with an indictment of 1960s New Orleans DA Jim Garrison. Known to JFK assassination buffs for his conspiracy theories (he was played by Kevin Costner in the Oliver Stone movie), Garrison is remembered by N'Awlins natives as, in Dr. John's words, "a gangbusters DA who padlocked the gambling dens, whorehouses, juke joints, and temples of 'tricknology' that had kept the New Orleans music scene alive." And to hear Dr. John tell it, in a low Louisiana growl that turns "ask" into "ax" and "frustrated" into "flustrated," the city has yet to recover.

"What [Garrison] did was he killed a lot of the local music scene for the locals," he says. "And all that was left was a lot of things on Bourbon Street, which was the tourism strip. The local scene is just scattered and splattered around. Unless you know where you're going or who you're going to see, people coming in would only get to hear basically what they think is the only musical scene there.

"When all of those musical strips [were there], there was about eight or nine of them in New Orleans that was nice musical strips, where you'd walk several blocks and there'd be joint after joint of different kinds of music."

But the city that has given the world everyone from King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to Aaron Neville and Wynton Marsalis is still producing great players, Dr. John says. The problem is, many of them are having to go to other cities to find places to play.

"It's just a shame they don't have enough decent-paying gigs for these kids to do better with it," he says. "I always hoped that one answer might [be to] put the gambling back and that would open some venues for these kids, but that didn't work."

Even if it's flagging at home, the spirit of New Orleans music long ago transcended the city's geographical boundaries, and Dr. John can take at least some of the credit for that. Albums like 1972's Gumbo introduced rock audiences to defining songs like "Iko Iko" and Professor Longhair's seminal "Tipitina." And in paying tribute to his mentors—Longhair especially, who was kind of a surrogate father to Dr. John in Rebennack's young wild days—Dr. John has proven himself their worthy heir. His free-flowing piano style has all the rhythmic punch of the old masters, something like 88 saints marching in a stuttering conga line down the keyboard. And his raspy voice—best known to casual pop listeners from his sole top 10 hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time"—is simultaneously world-weary and exuberant, the perfect vehicle for music that more often than not celebrates despair.

Both the playing and voice are captured to good effect on this year's Trippin' Live, his first "official" live album (a previous European live release came about more or less by accident). The title is a play on his secondary nickname, "the Night Tripper," but there's nothing spacey about its content. From a rambunctious "Tipitina" through a rowdy run at Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," the CD shows the 56-year-old reveler in full command of his mojo.

"Music is basically meant to be played live," he says. "Music was meant to come from the spirit kingdom, go through the meat in our body, come back out, and go back into people's spirit. And the closest thing I think you can get to that on a record is a live record."

And while Dr. John resists limiting his music by classifying it as "blues"—"I don't know what to call it"—he says that universal spirit is what keeps people coming back.

It's a Blues, Blues World

Musselwhite knows what that feeling's all about. For him, it's the only reason there is to make music.

"I know that there are musicians sometimes who complain that blues is boring, but that's because they have a limited imagination," says Musselwhite, who has gigged with everyone from John Lee Hooker to Doc Watson to INXS (that's his harmonica riff on "Suicide Blonde"). "To me, blues is more than just three chords and 12 bars. It's a feeling. It can be anything. I always say that if Billie Holliday sang 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' I bet it'd sound like blues."

Best known for his harmonica work, Musselwhite is also an accomplished singer, songwriter, and guitarist. On the HOB dates, he's doing a solo acoustic set, in addition to joining Dr. John and Keb' Mo' for the finale. Born in Mississippi in 1944, he moved to Chicago at age 18 and started hanging around the blues scene, eventually sitting in with juke joint deities like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Since his first album, 1966's Stand Back, he's recorded 17 discs and made guest appearances on 38 others.

His latest release, Rough News, is a solid collection of mostly straight-up blues, although his current passion for Brazilian music comes through on the Latin-tinged "Feel It In Your Heart."

"I've always been experimenting, not staying strictly within what some people would say is the only way blues can be played," he says. "I listen to jazz, I listen to Brazilian music, Cuban music, flamenco—any kind of music from anywhere in the world that has feeling. It influences me one way or another, sooner or later."

He's also seen traditional American blues take root in soils far removed from its New Orleans and Delta origins.

"All around the world, [there are] Italian, Scandinavian, Brazilian blues magazines, blues societies, blues festivals, blues bands...I've heard Polish blues bands, Italian, and Mexican. It's really fascinating, the effect it has on people. Once you hear it, it touches you and stays with you."

Both Musselwhite and Dr. John see the House of Blues tour as an opportunity to preach the blues gospel to neophytes as well as the converted. Although the House of Blues corporation—which has music restaurant/clubs in six cities, including New Orleans—has come under some criticism for turning American roots music into a sort of theme park, the two veteran performers say it's just another chance for the music they love to reach new ears.

"They're great," Musselwhite says. "They really make blues accessible to a lot of people. Whole families can go there...They have educational things they do where they bring in school classes, teach them about racism, and educate them about the history of the music. They do a lot of stuff. It's not just another nightclub."

Dr. John seconds the emotion. Noting his hometown's HOB goes at least some way toward addressing the city's venue shortage.

"Anything like that, I'm for it," he says. "It just opens the door for a lot of youngsters coming up. Because they got a lot of killer kids out here who ain't gonna fall into no mainstream thing, be on no MTV or no VH-1."

But even as new generations do arise—in the form of Keb' Mo', for instance, or young hotshots like Jonny Lang—blues is a genre singularly suited to elder statesmen.

"[That's] because blues is about life," Musselwhite says. "It's not about hot-rods. I mean, it could be about hot-rods, but blues encompasses everything about life. That's a good thing for me, because it means I won't be out of a job."

Dr. John, in fact, envisions playing his music right up until his last breath.

"I just always believe like Art Blakey—the idea that it'd be the nicest way to croak, on a gig," he muses. "Might not be the most fun for the people watching that particular gig, but it kind of seems appropriate to go out doing what we do."