Mad City's Mardi Gras kicks off with a big-time Big Easy double whammy when Dr. John and the Neville Brothers put voodoo on you at Overture Hall next Wednesday night. Are you ready? These New Orleans legends - my generation's cultural vanguard, today's national treasures - will blast this bitter winter outta your bones. Madison's had a long affair with Crescent City music (and food), but the post-Katrina diaspora helped put Mardi Gras on the map as a secular celebration in our frigid little city. And if there ever was a city in need of end-of-winter rituals, this is it.
Mardi Gras Mambo, this tour's official tag, takes its name from an eponymous tune recorded in '58 by Art Neville with a group called the Hawkettes. All four Nevilles, whose second-line roots run deep, have separate careers. Keyboard wizard Art's a founding father of funk. Saxman Charles plays East Coast post-bop and Latin jazz. Aaron's the one with the voice - that gospel-tinged, golden "Tell It Like It Is" tenor. Conguero Cyril, the youngest Neville (at 60), is the high chief of second-line reggae. Boil that up in one pot and you get some mighty gumbo.
Of all the Nevilles, Cyril's the most militant about corporate redevelopment crimes against poor, black New Orleans. Like him, Dr. John - the best barrelhouse/boogie-woogie piano player alive - is raising Cain about Katrina. Dr. John (his real name is Mac Rebennack) called his Grammy-nominated 2008 album The City That Care Forgot, a song cycle for raising consciousness. It's a long way from Gris-Gris, the hippie voodoo record that launched his national career 41 years back. Dr. John still plays get-down, good-time swamp funk blues, but his latest lyrics are livid.
I spoke with Dr. John briefly, by phone. "I've still got 48 songs left over from City That Care Forgot," he says. "They keep coming, like messages from the spirits. I try to live in the spirit, that's all life is. It's about making things a little bit better. The corporations are killing off the planet and vandalizing our culture. Shell Oil bought the New Orleans Jazz Festival after Katrina. They think, 'If we buy everybody who'll speak out, we're safe.' But they can't buy Dr. John. I plan to play a lotta the songs I've written against 'em this year, and if they don't like it they can not hire me; that's their prerogative."
But Mardi Gras Mambo won't be all protest tunes. "We'll do whatever feels right that night," says Dr. John.
The Nevilles and Dr. John, with his backup band, the Lower 911, play separate sets, but maybe they'll team up on a classic or two. We'll know it's Mardi Gras when the whole house belts out the chorus on "Iko Iko." C'mon, let the good times roll. But Dr. John's got a sober-up, post-party message for you. "It's not time for celebration," he says. "We got rid of Bush, but there's still a lotta stuff to turn around. It'll be time for real when we restore the wetlands that digging for oil destroyed."