If where you came from and when determines where you wind up, or how, Dr. John and Al Kooper arrived at The Egg on Saturday with similar classic-rock pedigrees but different music and missions.
Kooper, who played first with his five-piece Funky Faculty band — fellow Berklee teachers — started his career at the dawn of soul music and took it into all kinds of rock.
Kooper started on the dramatic ballad “Just One Smile” alone, adding players as he cruised through a medley that started with Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and climaxed with “I Just Can’t Keep from Crying.” All was vintage, and all was really good; but then he promised the real nitty gritty and sliced up “Green Onions,” protested “My Hands Are Tied” and funkifized Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”
Assembled of short riffs that fit perfectly, Kooper’s soul sounds rocked and swung, never rushed but got your pulse pounding at whatever tempo — especially the bold “Don’t Tell Me,” the slow “Just for a Thrill” (borrowed from Ray Charles) and the R&B-retrofitted and renamed “Funky Flute Thing.”
Kooper wandered into the crowd in his last number, sitting and exclaiming, “Hey! These guys are good!” just as he did last time here. But good shtick stays good.
Dr. John made the angriest music of his life on “The City that Care Forgot,” absorbing the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and government neglect, then hitting back, really hard. It’s his best album in years, but he and his Lower 911 band were better on Saturday.
You’d know they were from New Orleans in two bars — it was “Iko Iko” — even without the voodoo gear on the Doc’s piano. Another antique followed, the rollicking “Traveling Mood,” and then “Cabbage Head,” which Dr. John said was written when water was a new invention, but probably not long before his next tune, “St. James Infirmary,” modernized only a little.
Other really old stuff sounded simply great, especially Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene” in a revved, backbeat-bolstered blitz, Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junko Partner,” “Let the Good Times Roll” — the Doc jumping up from the piano to play guitar — and a salacious “Makin’ Whoopie.”
Doc did some of the protest tunes from “City,” sounding suitably angry on “Land Grab” and “Save Our Wetlands” as his encore, but he generally did let the good times roll. “Right Place, Wrong Time” got people up and dancing. But this was really a listening show, to a superbly strong and subtle New Orleans funk band: Dr. John’s rolling piano and uniquely gravely voice, David Barard’s bedrock bass, John Fohl’s versatile guitar and — especially — the fantastic drumming of Zigaboo Modeliste.
Kooper played organ in “Old Settlers” and “Wang Dang Doodle,” but Dr. John and his band didn’t exactly need any help. They were a Mardi Gras all by themselves on the parade chant “Big Chief,” the essence of New Orleans funk with its irresistibly turbulent beats, layered riffs and sheer momentum.
These guys rolled The Egg right down the Mississippi to where jazz, blues and rock all began.