Dr. John / Wild Magnolias Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON June 20

Dr. John / Wild Magnolias Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON June 20
The Big Easy came to Hogtown for the first night under the big tent at the Toronto Jazz Festival. In a nicely complementary bill, New Orleans funksters Wild Magnolias opened for one of that city’s true legends. "We’re gonna rock da house,” they pledged, and as the four-piece band launched into the classic "Iko Iko,” the crowd was on its feet. Things really came to life as three dancers/chanters hit the stage in full Mardi Gras regalia, throwing beads into the crowd. An ideal warm-up for Dr. John, the veteran pianist/singer/songwriter, who’s now the greatest living embodiment of his city’s vibrant musical heritage. Clad in a blue suit and still sporting his trademark ponytail, shades and black hat, the good doctor ambled onstage to a loud ovation. His 80-minute set offered up his seamless fusion of Creole, funk, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz, while playing down the voodoo mysticism that was formerly a big part of his colourful persona. That voice — a truly unique deep dark rumbling invocation from the swampy bayou — remains in peak condition, and the easy virtuosity of his piano and organ playing was similarly impressive. The audience’s hope that they might be treated to a night of old favourites would have been lifted by opening tunes "Iko Iko” and "Making Whoopee,” but Dr. John has never been about safe nostalgia. He then proceeded to devote most of his set to tunes from his brand new CD, City That Care Forgot. He introduced it by noting that "It’s about what’s been going on and not going on,” and, as the title suggests, its songs focus on the callous contempt shown towards the people of New Orleans post-Katrina. The Doctor is angry, and new tunes like "Promises, Promises,” "Dream Warrior” and "Black Gold” drove his points home. They’re not subtle lyrically ("The Road to the White House, paved with lies,” goes "Promises, Promises”), but the crack accompaniment of his ace three-piece band, the Lower 911, was versatile enough to keep things from sliding into one-dimensional protest mode. The solid slab of funk they delivered on "Land Grab” was one of the prime examples. Just as the audience’s attention started to waver with the string of unfamiliar songs, Dr. John announced "it’s time to dance,” and a spirited version of his 1973 hit (and still most familiar tune), "Right Place Wrong Time,” had them doing just that. For another new number, "My People Need A Second Line,” he invited the Wild Magnolias dancers back onstage, but their "put your hands up” chant was a little lame (a rousing "Fuck George Bush” would have been more fitting). Dr. John deserves credit for promoting the protest over the party vibe here, and he does his city proud.