New York Times, July 12, 2006

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Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint:
A bouncy take on the grim


Nate Chinen

"There must be something better than this," Elvis Costello sang on Monday night at the Beacon Theater, " ’cause I don’t see how it can get much worse." Mr. Costello was belting the chorus to "The River in Reverse," the acerbic and topical title track from the recent album he made with the venerable New Orleans pianist, producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint.

A moment earlier Mr. Costello had recounted his collaborative history with Mr. Toussaint, beginning with a couple of scattered album tracks in the 1980’s and skipping ahead to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina less than a year ago. During one frenzied week in New York last September, the two reconnected onstage at a series of benefit concerts. By week’s end, Mr. Costello had written "The River in Reverse," performed it with Mr. Toussaint and discussed plans for an album with Verve Forecast executives.

Like the recording, Monday’s concert featured Mr. Costello and his band the Imposters alongside Mr. Toussaint on piano, Anthony Brown on rhythm guitar and the four-piece Crescent City Horns. The chief tone of this ensemble, over the course of nearly three hours and more than 30 songs, was an unflagging warmth and exuberance, even when the subject matter was grim.

Some of the evening’s most buoyant moments involved vintage songs by Mr. Toussaint, like "Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further?," which he wrote for the New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Lee Dorsey. Mr. Toussaint sang lead, his relaxed, conversational baritone providing a contrast to Mr. Costello’s plangent and slightly adenoidal vocal style.

But Mr. Costello, a well-tested musical chameleon, managed to sound at home in Mr. Toussaint’s world. He sang the hymnlike plea "Freedom for the Stallion" with sensitivity and authority, stamping one aside — "it’s a doggone sin" — with a definitive sense of exasperation. He did nearly as well with "Tears, Tears and More Tears," a lovelorn plaint that has acquired a double meaning since the devastation in New Orleans.

Mr. Toussaint’s influence reached well beyond his own material; his arrangements were incorporated throughout the concert: not only on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," one of his early collaborations with Mr. Costello, but also on a host of other Costello originals. So "(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea" was retrofitted around a meaty horn part, while "Poisoned Rose" heeded a stately gospel cadence. Mr. Toussaint’s ebullient pianism was often as central as Mr. Costello’s tightly controlled guitar playing.

The unusually sympathetic rapport between the two headliners was the evening’s finest feature. It worked beautifully on "Ascension Day," an apocalyptic tone poem by Mr. Costello based on Mr. Toussaint’s minor-key translation of Professor Longhair’s New Orleans classic "Tipitina." And it worked again on the next number, a cover of Paul Simon’s "American Tune," with Mr. Toussaint on lead vocal.

"I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered," he sang in a quiet voice, accompanied only by Steve Nieve on Hammond organ and Mr. Costello on acoustic guitar. Mr. Toussaint carried the line, and the rest of the song, with masterly understatement. When he repeated the phrase "I’m all right," it came with a complex and subtly powerful mixture of emotions.

The River in Reverse Tour stops tonight in Boston and concludes next Tuesday in New Orleans.

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New York Times, July 12, 2006


Nate Chinen reviews Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint with The Imposters and The Crescent City Horns, Monday, July 10, 2006, Beacon Theatre, New York.

Images

2006-07-12 New York Times photo 01 gpb.jpg
Photo by G. Paul Burnett.

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