Maybe that voodoo that he do is too rarified for us. Maybe people don’t know who Dr. John is, or confused him with Dr. Phil. Either way, as a fan of “The Night Tripper” and New Orleans music, it must have been a little disappointing to see such a small turnout on Friday night at the Granada. At 72, Dr. John has survived and deserves his legendary status. The faithful who did turn out — about half the theatre — witnessed a fine show.
He looked a bit feeble shuffling on stage, dressed in a pinstripe suit, a feathered fedora, numerous rings and jewelry, and using for a cane, his skull-topped walking stick. He took his time while the five-piece band amped up, his musical director and trombonist Sarah Morrow announcing the “Night Tripper” like he was a carnival attraction. But then he sat down at the piano — also decorated with two skulls and various voodoo paraphernalia — and age stopped being an issue.
Dr. John plays piano like a faucet delivers water. His hands glide over the keys, no effort shown. His voice remains unchanged from his debut 1968 album “Gris Gris,” a mix of spooky grit and wily patois.
He started the evening with “Do You Call That a Buddy?” played much faster than he has been known to: it can swing like a spiritual, but here it was urgent. “Locked Down,” his 2012 album collaboration with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, was a state of the nation address, and maybe that’s where the vibe came from. He’s seen some things in his time, including the destruction of his home town, but the music has never died.
Dr. John — real name Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. — has ties that go way, way back to New Orleans. His father sold instruments and serviced musical gear, so the legends of jazz were not unfamiliar sights growing up. When he plays, there’s history in the notes.
When he takes a song like “Love For Sale,” the Cole Porter classic, he turns it into something else. On Friday night, it wasn’t clear he was even playing the melody some three minutes into what at first was an instrumental, but then some notes gelled, and some more, and then some more, and suddenly he was singing the chorus, a weird gumbo of Porter and Dr. John mixed together.
Then came some new songs from “Locked Down,” which slotted in perfectly with the others, although their clever chord progressions — they zig when one expects a zag — helped them stand out. “Ice Age” found Dr. John talking about how this “ain’t no age of the innocence/ ladies and gents / don’t make no sense” and “Big Shot” was a funky piece of self-deprecation, with a great trombone solo by Ms. Morrow.
After a medley of “Cotton fields” and “Goodnight Irene,” two standards, Dr. John went back to his first album for a long, jazzy rework of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” still ghostly after all these years. The song still has weirdness and menace, and like that cover of “Love for Sale” it took its time and crept up slowly, until it became apparent what he was playing.
“Right Place, Wrong Time” was another Dr. John standard, fun and upbeat. Next he stood up from his piano, wandered over to a guitar stand, and with the guitar just barely strapped to his shoulder, he knocked out Earl King’s “Come On/Let the Good Times Roll,” with an approach similar to “Love for Sale.”
“Revolution,” another new one, also looked at the state of things and wondered what can be done. The band’s funk even sounded a bit Afro-funk in its scale, just as Dr. John’s piano can slide into pentatonic, Asian tones.
But a good ballad also works well. And “Tell me You’ll Wait for Me” is a sweet, romantic number that plays to his smoky voice’s strengths.
Throughout the night, Dr. John didn’t really speak between songs. That’s why it was strange that “Soulful Warrior” was dedicated to “all the boys out there over the pond fighting for us.” It’s not a new song, but it’s one he cares about. A celebratory “Mardi Gras” day finished off the set, with space reserved for and introduction to the band: Reggie Jackson on drums, Dwight Bailey on bass, Kevin Turner on guitar, and Pookie Hudson on Hammond B-3. Under Ms. Morrow’s direction, the band is a bit more New York than New Orleans. At their blandest, the group sounds like a late night talk show band. At their best, well, it’s Dr. John, and we are lucky we got to see him.