To watch Dr. John walk onstage is to realize there’s a disconnect between his body and soul. Physically, he appears feeble at 71, unsmiling as he saunters toward the microphone with only the slightest acknowledgement of a roaring crowd. A few songs in, though, a gale force emerges from his gut and his fingers at the piano.
That was the jarring juxtaposition on display at the Paradise Rock Club Wednesday night. It was a sold-out performance that was as much about the electricity coming from the stage as it was from the audience.
Dr. John, otherwise known as Mac Rebennack, has been at this since the late 1960s, but he’s been invigorated by a new album produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “Locked Down” is something of a career retrospective: Swampy funk, cosmic blues, and New Orleans jazz all mingle naturally as only Dr. John could pull off.
At the Paradise, the new songs rumbled with a bottom-heavy beat. His six-piece band included two horn players — Derek Huston on saxophone, Sarah Morrow on trombone — and they were essential to re-creating the taut intensity of new songs such as “You Lie” and “Revolution.” On keys and occasionally guitar, Jon Cleary, who opened the show with a set of barrelhouse piano blues, was complementary to Dr. John’s playing.
Behind dark glasses, with colored bands keeping his gray ponytail tightly in place, Dr. John was often inscrutable between songs. He let the music speak for itself, from the psychedelic sprawl of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” to the unsinkable funk of “Right Place Wrong Time” to the celebratory spirit of the opening “Iko Iko.”
As good as it is, his new album hinges on Auerbach’s meticulous production. Live, however, Dr. John and the band found wiggle room to push the songs’ boundaries. Some jams went on long enough to make you wonder if the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, both of whom either were or are performing in the area this week, must have felt the heat coming from the Paradise.
After an hour and 45 minutes, Dr. John exited the stage the way he entered — slowly and focused on where he was going. Except there was a big difference: This time he had a little bounce in his step.