New Orleans legend Dr. John took the stage slowly Thursday night to open this season’s Alive at Five concert series. His band was in full jam mode while he wound his way through the crowded stage, a cane in each hand, his loud purple suit easy to spot as he situated himself on the piano and tinkled away to the psychedelic groove of his group.
Moments later they fell into the zydeco bounce of “Iko Iko” and the fans who were pressed up front started smiling and bouncing themselves.
This took place downtown on Broadway and Tricentenial Park, where the series started years ago. The park itself contained most of the people, but the stage faced Broadway. The sound was a slight problem because of this — barely strong enough to reach down the street more than a block. But while the music draws the people to the event, it’s the scene more than the music that commands the attention of most of the crowd.
Dr. John, 75 now, plowed ahead with his voodoo funk, laying down a slow and dark “Gris-Gris,” and then into a zippy “Right Place, Wrong Time” halfway through the show. This is probably his most known song, and while it energized the front of the crowd, there were no cheers of recognition after the first few rows.
The band was best when they sounded at what seemed to be their worst. Dr. John’s brand of R&B, with its Creole roots, calls on the musicians to fall all over themselves at times, as in the raggy classic “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark.” We learned early that his band could play tight, aggressive funk, so when they dragged down the bluesy “Walk on Guilded Splinters” and sounded naturally clumsy, it was impressive.
Despite his slow walk and age, Dr. John can still move around those piano keys, driving the band’s sound through each song, and taking a few happy-sounding solos.
He closed the show with “Bare Necessities,” a standard jazzy cover made famous from the movie the “Jungle Book.” People moved a little extra to this tune, and pockets of kids — grade schoolers and younger — suddenly emerged to dance and spin with abandon.
Dr. John followed with “Such a Night,” his big hit that still gets airplay 43 years after its recording. While it was technically his encore, he didn’t even rise from his piano bench between the last song and the encore.
The best part of the new venue was the options it gave one to move around. At the Riverfront, there seemed to be one way in and one way out for most of the audience: the foot bridge. Here there were many choices for coming and going, as well as for getting some space and still seeing the stage.
Jocamo opened the show, a local R&B group led by Dave Macks that gave us some funk, rock and soul. Macks is a large fellow who makes his presence known while on stage. When he sang — and spoke — people listened, particularly during their best moment, “Whiter Shade of Pale,” the Procol Harem classic.
Dr. John is a great act and put on a good, funky show, but his subtle, passive approach was lost on an outdoor free concert crowd. Still, most would say it was a good time. A chilly air with big blue skies, it was a good start to the season.