To mark the final night of their five-week North American tour, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint presided over a Tuesday night epic at the House of Blues that recalled Bruce Springsteen's indefatigable heyday. The marathon three-hour and 10-minute performance capped off — and realized the full potential of — the duo's post-Katrina partnership.
Backed by a seamless synthesis of their respective bands — Toussaint's guitarist and horn section grafted onto Costello's Imposters — they rendered most of The River in Reverse, their joint Verve Records album, and recast Costello chestnuts with intriguing new arrangements by Toussaint.
At this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Costello made a brief appearance as a special guest of Toussaint's band. By reversing that dynamic, their collaboration hit its stride. Neither ceded his identity to complement the other.
Toussaint is a reluctant frontman; Costello relishes the spotlight. So Toussaint was in his element at the side of the House of Blues stage, dressing up arrangements with elegant flourishes on a grand piano, as Costello stood and sang front and center.
Both are legendarily prolific songwriters. "Allen has written 450,000 songs," Costello joked. "I'm catching up with him. I've written 350,000, including 17 since we arrived here this afternoon."
They dove into their respective, and joint, catalogs. Costello laced "Broken Promise Land" with a jagged guitar solo, then set aside the guitar to plead "Freedom for the Stallion." They revived "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," their collaboration from Costello's 1989 Spike album, and navigated the tricky topography of Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can."
The Crescent City Horns — "all the way from right here," Toussaint cracked — generated their own atmosphere with backing vocals, synchronized steps and brass. "Big" Sam Williams' trombone charge razzed "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further," as on the record. But his cohorts also distinguished themselves, from Amadee Castenell's flute intro to "Alison" to "Breeze" Cayolle's baritone sax to Joe "Fox" Smith's ever-present trumpet. Together, they overlaid Costello's "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" with ska tones, spun his "Poisoned Rose" into a pure New Orleans rhythm and blues ballad and pumped up "Pump It Up."
Imposters keyboardist Steve Nieve's Hammond B-3 organ dueled with Toussaint's piano in "Nearer to You." Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher found common ground between rock and funk. Toussaint guitarist Anthony Brown chimed in alongside them.
In the first encore, Toussaint delivered a solo piano discourse on "Tipitina," imagining the Professor Longhair classic in multiple settings. In the night's emotional climax, he rested his hands on his heart to quietly sing Paul Simon's "American Tune" against a soft cushion of Nieve's organ and Costello's acoustic guitar. "I don't know a soul who's not been battered / I don't have a friend who feels at ease / I don't know a dream that's not been shattered or driven to its knees," sang Toussaint, who lost his house in Gentilly. "But it's all right, for we lived so well so long / Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on, I wonder what's gone wrong."
His partnership with Costello has afforded him more national attention than he's received in decades. And Costello's proximity to an artist he has long admired has invigorated him, prompting his entry into a world of music he has always enjoyed.
As the show neared its conclusion, Costello wondered whether he'd ever share a stage with as fine a gentleman as Toussaint. Their time together, he said, had been "a privilege." As it was for those who witnessed its conclusion.