Over the past three years, the Mystic Blues Festival has attracted some top-shelf talent: late bluesman Johnny Winter, guitarists Joe Louis Walker and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica legend, James Cotton, The Band-affiliated supergroup the Weight, even jammy '90s hitmakers the Spin Doctors.
Headliners at this year's festival, which is Friday through Sunday, Aug. 12 to 14, at the North Stonington Fairgrounds, include the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Friday, 8:30 p.m.), Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John and the Nite Trippers (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.) and rowdy jam/funk outfit Dumpstaphunk (Sunday, 5:30 p.m.), featuring Ivan and Ian Neville.
Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack), now 75, was last spotted in Connecticut (by me, anyway) at the 2011 Gathering of the Vibes, with his band the Lower 911. Music lovers with soft spots for New Orleans funk and R&B have likely spent time with the acid-damaged "Gris-Gris," "Gumbo," "In The Right Place" (his backing group was the Meters) and other late '60s/early '70s gems from his Atco Records years.
Recently, Mac has been on a hot streak; "Locked Down," a 2012 album produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (in a sort of neo-Rick Rubin/T Bone Burnett comeback-making role), took home a Grammy Award — Dr. John's sixth overall — for best blues album.
"Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch," a 2014 contemporary recasting of Louis Armstrong's music, brought him in close contact with Bonnie Raitt, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, the Blind Boys of Alabama and many others. "Ske-Dat-De-Dat" was co-produced by Dr. John and trombonist/singer Sarah Morrow, who now serves as his music director.
And with his characteristically growling and croaking voice, Rebennack was a natural fit to cover "The Bare Necessities" in the recent remake of "The Jungle Book," a slow, swampy arrangement of the song that plays as the end credits roll.
He's had hits: "Right Place, Wrong Time," "Such A Night," "Iko Iko." Most fascinating, however, is Rebennack's ability to sit in with practically anyone, and hold his own. There are countless examples; He owned "Low Country Blues," Greg Allman's 2011 album. A few days ago, randomly, a Facebook friend posted a clip of the late guitarist Jeff Healey, performing with bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Omar Hakim. To the side, waiting to take a chorus or two on piano, was Mac.
Those skills, likely developed during Rebennack's days as a late '50s session musician and songwriter in New Orleans, now endears him to younger generations of chops-forward players: Morrow, guitarist Eric Krasno, Galactic, Lettuce, Trombone Shorty, on and on. The Nite Trippers, Mac's current quintet, has a transparent sound, capable of shifting from second-line grooves to loping funk within a single song.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds (Friday's headliner) had hits in the mid-'80s with "Tuff Enuff" and "Wrap it Up" (singer Kim Wilson is the only remaining original member). Also performing on Friday are Roomful of Blues (5:30 p.m.) and Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez (7 p.m.).
Beginning at 11:30 a.m., Saturday features guitarist Tosh Sheridan, the Willie J. Laws Band, Bad News Barnes and the Brethren of Blues, Neal and the Vipers, Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice, and Blackburn. On Sunday, head over pre-Dumpstaphunk for Krystal Livingston, Jay Stollman (with Debbie Davies), Paul Gabriel and Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. Look out for educational clinics and student performances all weekend.
MYSTIC BLUES FESTIVAL happens at the North Stonington Fairgrounds from Friday to Sunday, Aug. 12 to 14. Admission is $110 to $160 for a weekend pass; $35 to $75 for day passes. mysticbluesfestival.com.