New Orleans’ historic Saenger Theatre, May 3, 2014, Jazz Fest season: Unquestionably the right place, right time for a Crescent City all-star bash honoring Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. After all, the lineup included New Orleans composer and legend Allen Toussaint, who died, suddenly, less than 18 months later. In retrospect, the stars seem perfectly and poignantly aligned when Toussaint performs “Life” before a hometown crowd familiar with the sweeping friendship and history he shared with Rebennack. Whatever one’s perspective, though, it’s a terrific Toussaint moment, yet another reminder of his singular soulfulness.
Of course New Orleans star power wasn’t in short supply when the fete commenced. As documented on this two-CD set, the concert’s talent roster was nearly as long as it was luminous, and the wide array of R&B, jazz, blues, rock and country artists reflects Rebennack’s broad appeal and influence. That’s why Bruce Springsteen’s surprise appearance on “Right Place Wrong Time,” the opening track here, isn’t all that surprising. Or why, for that matter, he revels at the chance to join Rebennack when they start stirring the gumbo. Don Was, who plays bass in the well-schooled house band and serves as the evening’s musical director, should get credit for allowing plenty of room for inspired groupings. Among the most enjoyable or striking: Dr. John cozily collaborating with Aaron and Charles Neville on “Please Send Me Someone to Love”; George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste reviving “Junko Partner”; and, kicking off disc two, Widespread Panic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band jamming “Familiar Reality.”
No one familiar with singers Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples will be shocked to discover that they immediately stand out, by turns-Thomas with “Since I Fell for You,” Staples with Rebennack’s “Lay My Burden Down.” Not every artist leaves a strong impression, but John Fogerty does. With riffing brass and a rush of syncopated beats prodding him on, he holds up his end of the party with a boisterous, ’50s-tinted “New Orleans.” Naturally Rebennack has the last word, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. “Rain” flows slowly and soulfully, with a big assist from trumpeter Terence Blanchard, before Rebennack teams with trombonist Sarah Morrow on two of his self-penned showstoppers: “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and “Such a Night.”