It wasn't until the 16th song that Elvis Costello played, Allen Toussaint's "Brickyard Blues," that dancing broke out on a small scale on the Britt hillside. Costello and Toussaint swapped lyrical chores on the irresistible New Orleans favorite, their best groove of the night to that point.
But Britt decorum was firmly in place again by "Watching the Detectives," which whatever else it is is not a boogie tune. It's one of the quirky, cinematic tunes from when the young Elvis was one of the angriest, and most talented, ripples in the New Wave.
Costello and Toussaint brought both their bands to the Thursday night show, the Imposters and the Crescent City Horns, which aggregation (10 musicians) led to a mighty noise on old and new songs that sampled the Toussaint songbook from back in the day right through new songs written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans.
Toussaint's was among the homes wiped out by Katrina, and he relocated for the time being to New York City, where he hooked up again with Costello. The two had worked together in the 1980s. Playing benefits for Katrina victims ("The government didn't think of it," Costello said Thursday), Toussaint wrote some new songs inspired by the disaster, and he and Costello collaborated on others.
Costello strode onstage in and black suit and shades, a little thicker than he used to be, and a lot cheerier. Costello and the Imposters rendered a passionate "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding," then Toussaint's band entered, and the players launched into "Monkey to Man" from The Delivery Man. Toussaint came out in a black suit and sandals and took a turn at the Steinway, and the whole band segued into "On Your Way Down," a classic, loping piece of New Orleans funk.
The playing was sharp from the get-go, the piano and Steve Nieve's Hammond B-3 and other keyboards to stage right, and Toussaint guitarist Anthony Brown and the horns stage left. Drummer Pete Thomas was set up behind Costello.
The music was all over the place, from Costello numbers such as "Clown Strike" to Gershwin- and Professor Longhair-style piano from Toussaint and lots of hot horns blowing from the band. "Poison Rose" was a standout Costello vocal stretchout.
The emotional centerpiece of the show, and of the tour, was the array of new songs by Toussaint and Costello about the New Orleans disaster. "Tears, Tears and More Tears" was a big, brassy rave-up with contrasting sad lyrics. "Broken Promise Land," by both men, was an angry march bearing witness to disillusionment.
Costello called Katrina "a fierce-tempered woman — aided by some nincompoops." The hurricane songs make it clear that although the event was an act of God, Costello and Toussaint feel there's plenty of blame for Providence to share with the city of New Orleans, Louisiana officials and the Bush ("Heckuva job, Brownie") Administration.
Costello's "The River in Reverse" is perhaps the angriest cry in this respect ("There must be something better than this / I don't see how it can get worse").
But the anger strives for nothing if not redemption, as in the anthemic "Ascension Day," a minor key take-off on Professor Longhair's "Tipitino" by way of "St. James Infirmary."
Toussaint's "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" rocked out, an exampled of Toussaint's gentle humor complementing Costello's sometimes melodramatic passion. More new Songs ("Wonder Woman," "International Echo") led to Costello's "Allison" deep into the encore, which finally took us to "The Sharpest Thorn," a sad new Costello-Toussaint gospel waltz that ended a protean evening on a note of longing. Heckuva show, gentlemen.