Central Park has a way of getting on your good side, even when the weather is scorching. But not a soul could complain about SummerStage this weekend, which featured not only Amy Helm and Dr. John, but a soft breeze that stirred the trees and danced with the edges of picnic blankets.
Amy Helm (daughter of the late The Band drummer, Levon Helm) delivered purposeful vocals in a way that was enticingly soft, as if tossing confetti or paper airplanes into the crowd. Dressed with a Janis Joplin kind of flair, she and her Handsome Strangers relaxed into roomy percussion, delicate dynamics, and a bluesy, folksy twang.
They had everyone leaning in for “Sky’s Falling,” when they nearly faded to silence and then hopped back up with a splash. But the audience was really in for a treat when Helm switched to mandolin. They wrapped up with a silky, a capella “Gloryland” (a hymn her dad taught her), and soon burst into the old gospel jam, “Ain’t That Good News,” in Levon’s honor.
“I grew up with Dr. John; he was part of the family,” laughed Helm between songs. “In fact, he used to drive my car pool when I was in second grade. He’d turn around and go ‘who wanta go to Mack-Donald’s?’” she said in a grizzly voice.
He may have done just that before the show, because the Nite Trippers built up the first few minutes of their set sans Dr. John – until trombonist Sarah Morrow shouted “Does anybody need a doctoooorrrrr?” Once the crowd was sufficiently stoked, Dr. John ambled up to his piano, all smiles, with a party of jewels, beads, feathers, and bones trailing behind him majestically.
If the city of New Orleans could stand up and walk around, it would probably wear the same outfit as Dr. John. His long grey hair was bound in multicolored ties, his fedora was trimmed with a crown of feathers, and even his socks were decked out in red flames, peeking out from his snakeskin shoes. He was soon tearing it up on his piano and electric keyboard, which sat beneath the watchful gaze of a human skull (fake) (probably).
Dr. John’s voice has a sweet and gruff familiarity to it, which gives his blend of vocals and spoken word a grandfatherly kind of warmth. He leisurely chanted and crooned to classics like “Iko Iko,” “The Monkey,” and “Right Place Wrong Time.” All the while, his Nite Trippers dished out the kind of dirty, jazzy sound that somehow makes you crave gumbo and po’ boys.
In a sea of swirling summer dresses, kids of all ages were dancing in the warm grass. When Dr. John sang “Never gonna be another big shot like me,” no one could argue with that.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley