The best advertisement for a visit to post-Katrina New Orleans isn't being produced by the Louisiana tourism office. Veteran rock tunesmith Elvis Costello and Big Easy musical treasure Allen Toussaint have teamed up for a tour this summer that serves as a striking reminder of the ebullient music of the city.
Last night at the Bank of America Pavilion Costello exhorted the three-quarters-capacity crowd to take a journey to the region to support its economic recovery. But if anyone is buying plane tickets today it was not Costello's words that did the trick but the mighty rock and soul performance that he, Toussaint, the Imposters, and the Crescent City Horns cooked up for more than two hours.
Part protest — an action figure of President Bush was the only stage prop — and part jamboree, the assembled group played most of the pair's recent album, The River in Reverse, and, as Costello put it, slapped "a new coat of paint" on a passel of his greatest hits and deep cuts.
Most of the brightest colors were supplied by the four-man Crescent City Horns who added noir tones to "Watching the Detectives," a calypso-style liveliness to "Clubland," and punctuated Toussaint's playful "A Certain Girl" with a series of bright brass exclamation points.
Toussaint sang only a handful of songs but made his presence known on the Steinway, enlivening the evening with licks both rollicking and solemn, sometimes on the same song as on the deceptively upbeat lament "Who's Gonna Help a Brother Get Further?"
Costello seemed especially energized and was in strong voice — crooning R&B tunes, yelping rockers, and applying his acidic bark to vigorous new protest songs — and made it easy to believe him when he said that this was the most fun he'd ever had onstage.
Near the end of the evening the regal Toussaint transformed the lyrics of Paul Simon's gently weary "American Tune" into both an elegy for lost ideals and a poignant rebuke of those who've lost them. It was stunning.
At the two-hour and 15-minute mark we reluctantly skipped out of the party to make our deadline to the determined grooves of "Yes We Can Can." The band seemed as tireless as the crowd.
While there is nothing about Hurricane Katrina for which to be grateful, this collaboration, which Costello said wouldn't have happened without the storm, proved that devastation needn't be total when it comes to the essential spirit of a place.
That Costello and Toussaint are able to bottle that New Orleans essence and sprinkle it liberally across the country on this tour is a fine testament to that spirit.