Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 @ The Corner Hotel, 31st March, 2010

3 out of 10: A flat outing for the king of the swamp

The globe is getting warmer, the days sultrier. It’s only a matter of time before the world is one giant Louisiana swamp, and in that sweaty future, we’ll all be listening on repeat to the mad gumbo stylings of Dr. John, New Orleans’ voodoo master.

Melbourne is a long way from New Orleans, but this Wednesday night is abnormally balmy for March in the Antipodes, the unexpected heat the perfect setting for musical concoctions from the Cajun country. Dr. John will clock seventy years on this mortal coil come November, yet no matter how far removed he might be from the latest trends and his revered home town, he still exudes a timeless cool that any style-conscious youth would die for.

The guitar, bass and drums of the Lower 9-11 Band are Dr. John’s foils, and it wouldn’t be too far fetched to assume that there’s 911 years of musical experience on stage together. Everyone of them knows every nook, every cranny of the rhythms and the melodies of the swamp, and perhaps that’s what’s the problem: Dr. John and the band seem bored, on autopilot, barely even there.

The show starts with One 2am Too Many, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Dr. John will be in bed by midnight at the latest. Compounding the musicians’ lack of energy is the low volume — a rudimentary stereo system could blast out something louder — and the microphones on stage that are bedevilled by technical hitches which repeatedly refuse to amplify Dr. John’s delightfully gnarled knot of a voice.

All that’s not to say there aren’t highlights: Reynard Poché’s slide guitar on St. James Infirmary is ridiculously slinky and adds something new to the standard, while Dr. John remains the consummate professional, the sound of Louisiana emanating effortlessly from the keys any time his hands touch them.

Nevertheless, Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 Band showcase tonight the pitfalls of an experienced hand. They’ve been around the block perhaps too many times, and the energy of a band on the make is keenly missed. The likes of the Dap-Kings and the Bamboos still celebrate the sounds of the past with vigour, and, unfortunately, the old stagers tonight are no match for the bands they’ve inspired, no matter how much more accomplished their veteran chops might be.

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