NEW ORLEANS — Such a night.
Saturday's much-touted all-star tribute to native son and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John, the "Night Tripper'') began with a promising wallop as surprise guest Bruce Springsteen took the stage with the honoree. The Boss, only a few hours removed from his 2½-hour set with the E Street Band at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival across town, stormed through Dr. John's biggest hit, Right Place Wrong Time, lending furious guitar phrases and gritty vocals as his cohort played a funky piano.
That led into a marathon evening in the beautifully restored Saenger Theatre that touched on all phases of Rebennack's prolific career, as a session player for most of the city's legendary R&B acts in the '50s and '60s, through his dual solo career as a master jazz pianist and high priest of voodoo-washed funk.
Featuring 32 songs performed by more than 25 guest acts, the evening was as cumbersome as its formal title: The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music. Nationally known names, including John Fogerty, Mavis Staples, Terence Blanchard, Widespread Panic, Warren Haynes, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Boutte and Ryan Bingham, alternated with greats from the region, including Irma Thomas, various Neville brothers, Allen Toussaint, Jason Isbell, Tab Benoit and Mardi Gras Indian chief Monk Boudreaux. Among the missing from the billed performers were Gregg Allman and Lucinda Williams.
Though the music was rendered professionally and Dr. John sat in with some of the guests, there was little passion or camaraderie — only keyboardist Chuck Leavell offered personal anecdotes, about auditioning for and touring with the honoree. The limited stage chatter and introductions by a disembodied announcer probably were due to the evening being recorded for a DVD and live album, but the setup robbed the show of some of its mojo.
Still, the highlights were noteworthy: Cyril Neville in an elegant white suit singing the Mardi Gras anthem Indian Red; Aaron and Charles Neville and Dr. John collaborating beautifully on Please Send Me Someone to Love; Staples offering a jaunty gospel reading of Lay My Burden Down; and the all-star closer of Iko Iko.