Considering the affinity Dr. John has with voodoo--he keeps a real human skull on his piano at gigs--it is not so hard to believe, as he says, that he actually heard the ghost of Louis Armstrong ask him to record a tribute album to him but in a funky Dr. John vein. Pops died in 1971 at the age of 69. Dr. John, 74, born Mac Rebennack and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, is now the acknowledged face of that great city. The album in question is last year's great "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch" in which he reinvents, turns upside-down and inside-out Armstrong's oeuvre into a funky kaleidoscope of pinwheeling hiphop, jazz, funk, soul and pop. At The MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he brought out his new band, The Night Trippers, and ran the gamut from traditional Crescent City Classics from Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" and The Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko" to his own "Such A Night," "Walk On Gilded Splinters" and "Right Place Wrong Time." It was a joyous occasion for the one-time session musician from Los Angeles who, as a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, graced hit singles by everybody from Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention and dozens of others. (Later, the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Willy DeVille, James Taylor & Carly Simon and Rickie Lee Jones summoned him into the studio.) It was in Los Angeles, though, where he chanced upon his Dr. John character. Always fascinated with his home town's cultural history, he knew the original Dr. John was a hoodoo chieftain in the 1800s, the chief competitor of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen Of New Orleans. Reportedly, the original Dr. John was a healer from Haiti with 15 wives and 50+ children. The gimmick worked. Now, you go see this great man in action and you'll get a good dose of Duke Ellington, Pops, Johnny Mercer, voodoo, jazz, blues and the kind of pumpin' feel-good wildness that only the true greats can provide. His voice is still in fine sandpaper style, his pianistics superb, his personality larger-than-life. There was an electricity in the air just prior to his entrance. The band was already in place and as he oh-so-slowly made his way to the bandstand (he can't walk too good), the excitement level increased exponentially with each tentative step he took. The MusikFest Café sits on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant which closed in 2003. Its blast furnaces are still there, a reminder of its former glory, but now they're lit up like an art-deco sculpture at night to serve as a backdrop to this gorgeous new venue. During warm months, free concerts litter the landscape like a musical amusement park. From jazz, blues, country and rock to salsa, samba, Cajun, Celtic and funk, the area has been gentrified into submission by the booking policies of Patrick Brogan, whose tastes for just under-the-radar genius has manifested itself into one of the Northeast's hottest music areas. This includes the 10-day MusikFest every summer with over 500 shows on 14 stages. Bethlehem, the formerly sleepy little hamlet with historic buildings from the 1700s, now, during MusikFest, seriously rocks. I'm partial to sitting at what's known as the Sands Deck enjoying the night air and the sweet sounds. Upcoming shows at the indoor and not-for-free MusikFest Café include the Robert Cray Band June 4; Sonny Landreth June 12, David Bromberg June 14, Madeleine Peyroux Trio June 18, Robby Kreiger of The Doors June 26, David Crosby July 5, Taylor Dayne July 12, Guster July 17 and Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues August 26. Look for me. I'll be there. I usually hang out at the bar because the drinks are strong and they have the best-looking bartenders in town and I'm an incurable flirt. The sound is loud, but not overbearing.
The décor is elegantly hip.