Sometimes the toughest critics are those closest to home. For the past 40 years, Dr. John has been wowing fans with his highly danceable New Orleans sound; he has also recorded more than 20 solo albums, won two Grammys and worked with most of the biggest names in music, including Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones.
Still, when he recorded his latest album, Mercenary -- a collection of songs by the legendary Johnny Mercer -- Dr. John's thirtysomething daughter, the one who suggested a Mercer album in the first place, wasn't sold on his rendition of the classic tune, Personality.
"It's funny, because that's the song that really got us started with this whole thing. And then when I asked her, 'Well, what do you think about it?' she said, 'Well, it's all right,' " recounts Dr. John with a laugh. "But she's one tough critic."
Like Dr. John, Mercer worked with all the superstars of his day, and his songs -- That Old Black Magic, Moon River and Jeepers Creepers, among others -- have been recorded by jazz greats, from Ella Fitzgerald to Diana Krall. But Dr. John wasn't drawn to Mercer for his big-name connections; the main appeal was the language.
"I didn't know much about him, but I could tell he was from somewhere in the South. His music has a richness to it, and he uses words that nobody else would. I mean, he sings about 'My Huckleberry Friend,' " says Dr. John, in a bayou-thick New Orleans accent. "I don't think a lot of people even know what a huckleberry is. "
Another thing the two songwriters share is a love for the South. So when Dr. John's hometown of New Orleans was ravaged by hurricane Katrina, he released a benefit album called Sippiana Hericane and became an unofficial spokesperson for the flood victims, many of whom were family, friends and colleagues.
"The album gives people hands-on help that the big organizations that should be helping them ain't. That's the part of it all that gets me crazy. It's about money to some people, and it ain't about people," he says passionately. "And I offend a lot of people when I start running my mouth about it. I've offended mayors and governors and the president. But it don't matter to me, because I call 'em like I see 'em."
But make no mistake: When Dr. John takes the stage tomorrow, he's not going to talk politics. He'll be getting everyone's booty shaking.
"Listen, as long as I'm in touch with the spirit king, and I'm breathing the breath of life, there ain't no limits to nothin,' " he says. "The spirit of music is a powerful, healing thing, and I think there are no ends to what it can do."
Dr. John and the Jim Byrnes Acoustic Band play tomorrow at the Jazz Festival, Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts, 777 Homer St. $50 to $55. Ticketmaster, 604-280-4444; 604-872-5200.