Elvis Costello, England's seminal angry rocker, sounded uncharacteristically mellow over the phone.
Is it his advancing age? Maybe. Or living in North America with his pregnant third wife, jazz diva Diana Krall? Perhaps.
More likely, however, it was the third party on the line: New Orleans singer/songwriter Allen Toussaint, the latest in a long line of Costello collaborators and a behind-the-scenes legend with a 50-year track record of hitmaking. After creating a critically acclaimed album together, these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have undertaken the summer's hippest tour, which comes Wednesday to the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.
Working together for nearly three hours every night has taught Costello, a lifelong R&B aficionado, a slightly different approach to making soul music.
"When Allen steps forward and sings, it just reminds me to bring my voice down to earth a little bit," Costello said last week from a San Francisco Bay Area hotel. "When you're used to singing in front of a loud electric band, you tend to sing with a lot of force.
"The gentleness of Allen's singing reminds me that there's something to be said in that voice as well. It helps me to be a better singer," Costello said.
The respect between this R&B odd couple — the gentlemanly Southerner, 68, and the bombastic Brit, 51 — was obvious over the phone.
Toussaint admires Costello for being "a giant" as a rock guitarist and as a vocalist in R&B, pop and country. "He covers so much territory," the Big Easy big shot said, "and he's such a student of the world of music — musics. I've never seen more respect and love for the art than what's in Elvis — and the energy to get it across."
Costello, for his part, admires the various roles Toussaint plays: songwriter, producer, pianist, arranger, "and the one he underestimates the most — the sound of his voice."
Toussaint jokes that Hurricane Katrina was the booking agent for this project. His landmark Sea-Saint Studios — where Paul McCartney, LaBelle, the Band and others have recorded — was destroyed and his house was flooded. So he headed to a New York hotel, where Costello found him.
Toussaint had worked on two Costello albums, most recently 1989's Spike. They ended up performing together at a series of Katrina benefits in New York last fall and that led to the album The River in Reverse.
The hyper-prolific Costello wanted to do a tribute to Toussaint, who has penned more than 700 songs. It turned out that the Brit was more familiar with the New Orleans stalwart's catalog than Toussaint was. A few tunes were taken from Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can," a favorite Costello album from 1970, and the collaborators co-wrote five new numbers.
They've added material for the tour — some sung by Toussaint plus a few Elvis oldies he arranged to feature his Crescent City Horns along with the rocker's band, the Imposters.
"They weren't old songs to me," Toussaint said. "This music is very fresh to me. It's so involved. It's very unlazy writing. There are modes and modes in it. It keeps musical life interesting. I'm having a great time."
Several songs on The River in Reverse — both new and old — have political undertones. The two musicmakers see their album as part of the healing process for New Orleans as it deals with both the aftermath of Katrina and lingering anger over government officials' handling of the disaster.
In April, before the disc was released, Costello sat in with Toussaint at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He was struck by the crowd's reaction to the unfamiliar words of the Costello-penned title tune, which starts out: "How long does a promise last? How long can a lie be told?"
Even more powerful, he felt, was the feeling generated by Toussaint's song "Nearer to You" and its lyric, "I know you say that you'd be home soon."
"It suddenly occurred to me," Costello reflected, "that a song can have an unintended meaning and that it can offer some solace or consolation. It was quite hard to get through the line. It struck me as being very poignant."
Both artists think their album will have a life of its own after Katrina.
"This music is forever," Toussaint said. "Katrina isn't forever."
The Louisiana native is slowly making plans to return to his hometown.
"After the house is gutted, you have to do this purification about mildew," he said. "I'm glad to say it is in progress. Being out here is wonderful, but to get things done properly [in New Orleans], you'd have to show your face more than I can right now."
After his house is rebuilt, he'll think about setting up a studio. Meanwhile, he knows he can work at Piety Street Recorders, where half of The River in Reverse was recorded. (The disc was made quickly — one week in Hollywood, one week in New Orleans.)
But for now, the studio denizen is finding out about life on the road. His last major tour was in 1957 as the pianist for Shirley & Lee, the R&B duo known for "Let the Good Times Roll."
"This is a first for me by a long shot," said the veteran, who said he's "collected some wishbones and feathers" on this trek.
On their 25-concert tour, Toussaint and Costello have played in a variety of venues from the Bonnaroo jam-band festival in Tennessee to a winery in California's Napa Valley.
"It's really been thrilling," said Costello, who announced Monday that he and Krall are expecting their first child (and Costello's second) in December.
On the tour bus, the two stars talk mostly about the previous night's concert, he said. "We've done it on a number of different stages, from a tent in the parking lot of a casino in Green Bay, Wis., to the fabulous Oakland Paramount, which is one of the great halls of R&B."
And New Orleans itself is a revered R&B institution, one that, like Toussaint, begs for renewed attention and respect. That's why, Costello says, their tour will play its final date there on July 18. How fitting.