Saturday night at the Saenger Theatre was, in the words of Dr. John, “Such a Night.”
A parade of stars came together for “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music.” The big names included New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival headliners Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty; Mavis Staples; Aaron, Cyril and Charles Neville; Widespread Panic; Allen Toussaint; Irma Thomas; Jason Isbell; and Warren Haynes.
Gregg Allman had been listed among the evening’s top-billed guests. He didn’t make the show but surprise guest Springsteen did.
“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams introduced the first song of the night, featuring Dr. John and replacement singer Springsteen.
Springsteen stood center stage with his guitar, joining Dr. John and an all-star band led by bassist and music director Don Was for a performance of Dr. John’s biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
Springsteen had wrapped up a headlining show at the Jazz Fest a few hours earlier. Fogerty, another of Jazz Fest’s 2014 headliners, appeared in the second half of the tribute, which lasted until 1:20 a.m.
Despite the late hour, the evening’s sense of occasion never waned.
After opening big with Springsteen, the music kept coming as one great performer after another stepped onto the Saenger stage.
Gospel greats the Blind Boys of Alabama sang Irving Berlin’s “Blues Skies” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The mighty Mavis Staples took the sold-out house to church on Saturday night with “Lay My Burden Down.”
“This is awesome,” New Orleans singer, guitarist and songwriter Anders Osborne said before his amusing take on “Somebody Changed the Lock on My Front Door.”
“Whoa!” Osborne said. “Dr. John! Can’t find a bigger influence on me than that.”
In a tribute from one piano man to another, the elegant Toussaint sang and played a bouncing “Life,” ending the piece with a lovely piano solo.
Aaron Neville and his saxophone-playing older brother, Charles, reached back to the roots of Dr. John for an exquisite rendition of Charles Brown’s blues prayer, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”
Cyril Neville, who has long been identified with Mardi Gras Indian culture, appeared in a brilliant white suit to sing “My Indian Red.”
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, in resplendent Indian costume, led the band in “Big Chief,” a Carnival classic by another of Dr. John’s influences, Professor Longhair.
House band member John “Papa” Gros played Longhair’s intricate “Big Chief” piano licks on his Hammond B-3 organ.
Bassist George Porter Jr., having taken over from Was as band leader for several songs, acknowledged Gros’ contribution. The Dr. John tribute had to be the gig of a lifetime for Gros.
Fogerty and the house band, including local horn players Bobby Campo, Mark Mullins and Khris Royal, performed a boisterous rendition of the Gulf Coast favorite “New Orleans.”
The many other musicians on stage included John Boutte, the Radiators’ Dave Malone, the Allman Brothers Band and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
With so many artists performing his songs, Dr. John played just a few numbers. They included “Such a Night,” saved for long past midnight.
The event was filmed for Blu-ray and DVD. It was a great night, and one that could happen only in New Orleans.