Dr. John pauses before he pours on the hot sauce.
Review and Photos by Barry BrecheisenWhat better way to spend a cold winter night in the Windy City than imagining you're far, far away partying in the bayous of Louisiana. As a part of their "Paint The Town Blues - Winter Delights" musical program, the city of Chicago had that very thought by hosting a colorful and festive creole zydeco bash at downtown's Oriental Theatre. Last Friday evening Chicagoans got a spicy taste of The Big Easy with the likes of Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas and last but not least the Night Tripper himself - Dr. John.
Before I even get into the events of the evening let's start with the venue itself. The Oriental Theatre is one of those places they not only don't make any more but would never even consider it. Built back in 1926 as a "motion picture palace" this opulent three-level theater is an awe-inspiring vision. It holds 2,200 plush seats and has features exotic sculptured sea horses and goddesses to complete the look of a grand Asian temple. Nowadays it's used for theatrical productions from "Ragtime" to "Fosse," but there was a time, back in her heydays, when everyone from Judy Garland, Cab Calloway, Stevie Wonder to even The Three Stooges graced her stage.
With this in mind, it was a nice change of pace to have such a luxurious setting to host this feisty celebration of music. Although the two opening acts, The Wild Magnolias and Nathan and The Zydeco Cha-Chas, were not as well known as the main act, both are, nonetheless, as synonymous with New Orleans and the Mardi Gras scene as colored beads, red beans and rice and Pat O'Briens' Hurricane. Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, a group of Mardi Gras Indians augmented by a smoking New Orleans funk band, have been around for decades and worked perfectly to kick start the party. This 10 member band complete with full Indian regalia (an homage to the American Indians who treated black slaves and free-men of color as equals in the 19th century) had people dancing their inhibitions away in the aisles. In true Mardi Gras style, people were waving their beads and shaking their tail feathers to the African-Caribbean soul rhythms of the Wild Magnolias' 7-song set that included favorites such as "Iko Iko" and "All on Mardi Gras Day." One couldn't help but get caught up in it all. Prior to ending their set during the number "Hey Now Baby", the band welcomed the audience on stage to dance and share in the celebration.
Next up was Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Led by accordion player Nathan Williams, their mission is to bring zydeco and traditional Cajun music to the masses - or at least to Chicago this evening. The audience, decked out in everything from black tie to biker-leathers, were united as they clapped their hands and shook their money-makers to the infectious rhythms. During the title track from their latest release "Let's Go" Nathan addressed the crowd, "If you're having a good time make some noise!" The theatre roared and prompted the self-proclaimed "Zydeco Hog" to burst into a spirited accordion jam.
Compared with the previous acts, Dr. John showed up very light with just a 3-piece band backing him up. The Doctor was in fine form, however, performing front and center to the crowd -one that you often find in the lobby participating in smoke and drink rather than inside. Unfortunate since they may have missed Dr. John jumping out of his seat to do a little jig in-between alternating on the white yamaha and organ. "We use to do a lot of records from Chicago," he announced before his fingers hit the keys to the Willie Dixon classic "Wang Dang Doodle" - a song that has become a signature tune for local blues great Koko Taylor. Unfortunately, though, his version didn't deliver the urgency and raw energy of Taylor's. Still, he managed to make up for it at the keys with some very nice piano work. By the end of the tune the audience joined in singing, "All night long!..." dueting with the Doctor.
It may have been the dead of winter in the midwest, but for one night, at least, this group of funky artists made it nice to get out and blow off a little steam - Big Easy style.
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