Rock's hyper-ambitious Renaissance man Elvis Costello has worked with a potpourri of collaborators in recent years — an opera singer, a string quartet, a middle-of-the-road pop hitmeister, the London Symphony Orchestra and a piano-playing jazz diva.
Think what you will of those disparate adventures, but there's no question that for his new project with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, Costello's aim is true.
Costello, 51, and Toussaint, 68, a behind-the-scenes star, have made a critically acclaimed New Orleans-flavored album, The River in Reverse, inspired by Hurricane Katrina. Now they have taken to the road with a smart concept — a merged band, with Costello's usual backup trio combined with five of Toussaint's favorite studio players.
The pairing of the two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers made for an inspired and inspiring evening of cross-generational music Wednesday at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul.
Costello was clearly the star of the show, with his material and aggressive voice dominating, and Toussaint playing his customary role of sideman.
It was too bad that Toussaint didn't get to sing more than six numbers in the 30-plus song set. Still, his tasty-as-gumbo piano lines carried through the loud sound mix like a 2-year-old's scream at day care. And his Professor Longhair tribute was as much a New Orleans marvel as "Yes We Can" was a party treat and "What Do You Want the Girl To Do" was a sweet stroll into the '70s.
While the songs from their duet album were more dynamic live, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this collaboration was Toussaint's new arrangements of nine old Costello songs. Some were obscure, such as "Poisoned Rose," which became a little bit Patsy Cline, a little bit Charlie Rich and a whole lot of Elvis. "Alison," from Costello's 1977 debut My Aim Is True, was dressed up with flute, horns and Toussaint's soulful B-3 organ. As for other early Elvis favorites, "Pump It Up" was full-band punk, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" was buoyed by James Brown-like horns, and "Clubland" was redecorated with mambo horns and Cuban piano.
But this 2¾-hour concert also showed the tender vocalizing of England's angriest rocker. Probably the best example Wednesday was "The Greatest Love," a sweet and simple R&B love song. More important, though, were Costello's contagious joy and crowd-pleasing soulfulness — on everything from jump blues to R&B ballads — thanks to his new best friend, Toussaint.