The Doctor makes his rounds: Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre

By Ali Kaufman

Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre. Photo: Skip Bolen/Getty Images
Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre. Photo: Skip Bolen/Getty Images

Dr. John
Saenger Theatre
New Orleans, LA
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa
Little Torch Key, FL

The Saenger Theatre was ground zero on the second Saturday of Jazz Fest. New Orleans sets the musical bar sky-high—and this was the hottest gig in town. Legendary producer Don Was, upon watching Dr. John perform at the all-star Greg Allman tribute in January, decided to put together something similar for the good doctor, and so “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music” was born. The lineup was stellar, the kind of lineup that made you rub your eyes in disbelief and even then it didn’t tell the whole story.

The energy in the beautifully restored, historic theater was palpable as the first guest, Dr. John’s longtime friend, Bruce Springsteen, took the stage. An hour after he’d finished his own rousing three-hour closing set over at Jazz Fest, here he was busting loose with “Right Place Wrong Time.” Over the next four hours at the Saenger, guest after guest performed, some with the guest of honor and some without. We sat down to catch our breath then sprang back out of our seats as Aaron Neville, John Fogerty or Mavis Staples—who would give you a jolt of electricity if you touched her—took their turns, with Don Was ever-present on bass, looking like a kid in a candy store. With Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Ryan Bingham, Tab Benoit and others, betting on what was coming next became the game between songs, high fives all around as another Dr. John classic got new life.

Dr. John had just come back to New Orleans from Australia for this show. Afterward, he was ready to recharge, and a few fans and I followed suit, joining him at the magical Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, in the Florida Keys. I expected Ricardo Montalban and Tattoo to be waiting for us on the dock but, of course, we had someone much better to see that night: Dr. John, performing as part of the resort’s intimate Sandbar Sessions program, with a very small audience and a completely different show than the highly produced event at the Saenger. Little Palm Island Resort’s stage is literally on the beach, torch-lit, water just steps away, the audience seated on outdoor furniture nicer than most people’s indoor furniture.

Sound check was almost as good as the show. The piano was flown in and reassembled, because playing on anything else would not have been the experience Little Palm wants to offer, and what an experience it was—so personal, so exciting to be close enough to see Dr. John’s expression as he played our favorites and even threw in some incantations for good measure. He shared his good juju and I’m still feeling energized by it. We all appreciated the fantastic performance and showed that appreciation over the next two days by not bothering him and the band while they got some well-deserved R&R.

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