At least one prominent local name is missing from the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival roster: Dr. John.
The 77-year-old New Orleans music icon’s official website lists no upcoming performances anywhere. He canceled two scheduled shows at Tipitina’s in late December, citing illness, and has apparently not performed publicly since then.
Whether his absence from the stage is because of an ongoing recovery from whatever ailed him in December, a temporary hiatus, or possibly a sign of a more permanent retirement, is not clear. His manager, Gavin Massey, did not return calls seeking comment.
Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack has rarely missed Jazz Fest. He skipped the 2014 festival to focus on an all-star tribute concert at the Saenger Theatre that featured Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and many others singing his praises.
Saturday night at the Saenger Theatre was, in the words of Dr. John, “Such a Night.”
But he was back at the Fair Grounds the following year. During the 2017 Jazz Fest, he performed on the first Sunday, April 30, after the day’s earlier acts were washed out by thunderstorms.
In a green suit unruffled by the day’s turbulent weather, he fronted his revamped Nite Trippers, a band consisting of New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Roland Guerin, guitarist Eric Struthers and guest saxophonist Charles Neville. They closed their set with an epic “Big Chief” and a salacious “Such a Night.” Rebennack then strutted offstage, grinning, surround by a trio of scantily clad young ladies.
The title of Dr. John’s Grammy-winning 1992 album asserted that he was “Goin’ Back to New Orleans.” He’s following a similar philosophy with h…
In 2017, he logged nearly three-dozen performances across the country, including dates with the Avett Brothers at Red Rocks amphitheater near Denver and at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. He also played several shows on a tour marking the 40th anniversary of The Band’s “Last Waltz” farewell concert (he was part of the original “Last Waltz”).
In April, he sat in with fellow New Orleanian Jon Batiste’s band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
On Nov. 2, Rebennack celebrated his 77th birthday with a lunchtime reception at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. Later that evening, he materialized on the stoop of Fats Domino’s old house in the Lower 9th Ward at the conclusion of a memorial parade in Domino’s honor.
On Oct. 25, he taped a tribute to Domino during the “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame Induction celebration in Texas. Onstage with Elvis Costello, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and members of the Neville Brothers' backing band, Rebennack seemed to have trouble navigating his piano and vocal parts on “Ain’t That a Shame.”
He has battled a litany of ailments over the years. The illness that forced him to cancel his Tipitina’s shows in December was not specified.
Jan. 22 marked the 50th anniversary of his debut album, “Gris-Gris,” which Rolling Stone magazine named one of the 500 best albums of all time. A spooky synthesis of New Orleans music and psychedelic rock, it concluded with “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” one of his signature songs.
He's released a number of albums that are essential to the New Orleans music canon, even as he's evolved into one of the city's most enduring, respected and iconoclastic musicians and cultural figures. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
On May 3, 2014, music stars paraded into the Saenger Theater in New Orleans for “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music.”
Dr. John is not the only bedrock New Orleans act absent from the 2018 Jazz Fest schedule. No version of the Meters -- either the original quartet, or the offshoot Funky Meters -- is on the bill. Founding keyboardist Art Neville, who turned 80 in December, has dealt with limited mobility in recent years, and is reportedly recovering from a number of recent health issues.
Earlier this week, Jazz Fest announced the addition of rapper LL Cool J to the festival's May 4 schedule.
If he's up for it, Dr. John may yet become another late addition to the schedule. Fans of New Orleans music would undoubtedly cheer the good doctor's return.