Bruce Springsteen isn't the only marquee rocker on the road this summer who has been weighing in on current events while celebrating the songbook of a legendary musician.
Elvis Costello may have one-upped the Boss, however. Unlike Springsteen, whose latest project attempts to channel the spirit of folk icon Pete Seeger (minus any direct involvement from the latter), Costello isn't just honoring the music of R&B maestro Allen Toussaint.
Costello and Toussaint are actually on tour together to promote their fetching new album, The River in Reverse. Along the way, they seem to be hoping to raise the national consciousness, too.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers — Class of 2003 (Costello) and Class of 1998 (Toussaint) — teamed up for a pavilion-only concert Friday night at Blossom Music Center. Both of them cut dapper figures in dark suits.
British singer-guitarist icon Costello and his Imposters band — Steve Nieve on keyboards, Davey Faragher on bass and Pete Thomas on drums — wasted no time in establishing a socially conscious mood with their opening salvo, a full-speed-ahead "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
They soon were joined by Toussaint, the piano-playing singer-songwriter and record producer from New Orleans, as well as guitarist Anthony "AB" Brown and the four-piece Crescent City Horns.
The stage was devoid of decoration, putting the emphasis squarely on the extraordinary music.
"This is not what you might call a high-tech show," Costello said. "We can only afford one prop," he added, referring to a miniature George W. Bush action figure.
Costello blamed "incompetence" and "nincompoops" for the ongoing tragedy in Toussaint's hurricane-ravaged hometown.
A handful of fresh tunes off their joint CD, including the poignant title track, pulled no punches as they surveyed, to paraphrase the lyrics, a nation divided by "uncivil" war. The outspoken "Broken Promise Land" alternated between hard-hitting R&B verses and a stripped-down, gospel-style refrain.
Blasts from the storied pasts of the headliners were scattered throughout the concert.
Costello, 51, dusted off the likes of "Watching the Detectives," "Pump It Up" and the ever-lovely "Alison," reborn with a beguiling new arrangement featuring Amadee Castenell of the Crescent City Horns on flute.
Throughout the evening, Costello sang with all the sweaty passion he could muster, particularly during a transcendent "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." His unhinged guitar solo toward the end of "Dust" was a treat, too.
For his part, 68-year-old Toussaint was never at a loss for some exquisite ivory-tickling, whether he was prefacing "On Your Way Down" with a bluesy vamp or punctuating "A Certain Girl" with a spine-tingling glissando.
He ably handled lead vocals on the latter number, as well as on a fiery rendition of "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?"
When Toussaint paid tribute to one of his idols with a mesmerizing Professor Longhair medley, it was all Costello could do to look on in head-shaking, finger-snapping disbelief.
Toussaint's spidery fingers danced over the keys of his piano like a tarantula on a hot tin roof.
The only disappointment was the turnout, which may have been curtailed by stormy weather. The pavilion was less than half full.
Nonetheless, fans who braved the rain found themselves richly rewarded with a 2½-hour extravaganza by a pair of major talents whose mutual admiration was contagious.