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Better than bein' nobody

Dr. John & the Nite Trippers and the music of New Orleans

Dr. John, unofficial ambassador of New Orleans music, heads to Tacoma. Photo credit: Bruce Weber

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Some artists are so inextricably associated with where they come from that it's nearly impossible to not mention them and their hometown in the same sentence. Once this connection gets formed in your mind, there's no getting rid of it. I could ask 100 random people the first thing they think of when I mention Liverpool, and not one person would say anything other than the Beatles. Eminem, for all his success, remains the hungry young rapper who came from Detroit. The Decemberists have Portland coursing through their veins, Tom Waits is seedy Los Angeles incarnate, and bands like the Ramones and Blondie were defined by ‘70s New York City. Still no word on where Bruce Springsteen is from, though.

Legendary pianist and inimitable performer Dr. John is forever linked to New Orleans. Hell, the man practically is New Orleans, having been unofficially anointed as one of its musical ambassadors over 40 years ago, on the back of enduring singles like "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such a Night." The music and soul of New Orleans flows so smoothly and thoroughly through Dr. John that he'd likely have obtained adoration even without his joyfully eccentric dress and personality. Even his given name, Mac Rebennack, is melodic and percussive, unspooling from your tongue trippingly and with a bit of a swing.

At nearly 76 years old, Dr. John's passion for music has never faltered, but his desire to look around and appreciate all there is to be offered from funk, jazz and R&B has ripened, resulting in the deceptively daring Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, a collection of Louis Armstrong covers released in 2014. These are songs that have been covered a million times over, but Dr. John says Armstrong visited him in a dream and instructed him to make them his own. The album opens with a vivacious, swinging version of "What a Wonderful World" - almost a preemptive answer to anyone questioning how he'd handle that iconic song - and the rest of the album follows suit, reintroducing the listener to music deeply familiar to all of us.

Dr. John speaks in a low, gentlemanly drawl, completely opposed to his singing voice, which maintains that wily electric croak he's had for all these years. Asking him over the phone how he's doing, he replied, "I'm breathing, and that's a plus in my book."

"I'll never forget when Harold Battiste made those first records of me," Dr. John said of his early recording experiences. "I never knew what we was doing, or why, but he did great records on us, and that was the opening of my doors. That was a special thing that made my life worthwhile."

On taking Louis Armstrong and doing them the Dr. John way: "Yeah, it was a difficult thing to do, and I loved doing it. I love so many of the records (I included on the album). To me, it was a spiritual thing to do. ... I thought I did a pretty good job of it."

Speaking with Dr. John, it becomes clear that making music is a matter of course, these days. Things that I find extraordinary, like his long, storied career, or his Louis Armstrong album, or the upcoming live double album The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and his Music (featuring a cavalcade of guest stars) - these are all things that, as Mac says, you just "roll with."

"Some part of me is always sayin', ‘Wow, how did I get to be the ambassador of New Orleans?'" said Dr. John. "I don't know that. But, hey, it's better than bein' nobody."

Fair enough, Mac.

Dr. John & the Nite Trippers, Friday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m., $39-$110, Pantages Theatre, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.591.5890, broadwaycenter.org

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