San Francisco Chronicle, June 21, 2006

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Costello, Toussaint keep
New Orleans in the forefront


Joel Selvin

It would take some surly rock star from England to remind us Colonials of our own natural resources.

But Elvis Costello doesn't normally pull audiences to their feet at the end of every song. At the Paramount in his joint performance Tuesday with New Orleans music great Allen Toussaint, he was getting standing ovation after standing ovation for songs the audience had largely never heard before in an evening they won't soon forget.

With four brash and splashy horns, an extra guitarist and maestro Toussaint on the Steinway grand and vocals, Costello revamped his customary razor-sharp rock quartet into a full-blown New Orleans rhythm and blues orchestra. Not only did this luminous ensemble play the material from the recently released joint album by Costello and Toussaint, The River In Reverse, but Costello had Toussaint write new arrangements for nine of his other older songs -- from well-known pieces such as "Clubland" to songs that Costello allowed he and the band had forgotten about such as "Tears Before Bedtime" from his 1982 album, Imperial Bedroom.

Although Toussaint has been the dominant figure on the New Orleans R&B scene since Fats Domino stopped having hits, his work is not popularly known outside that endangered city. His arrangements not only graced the many '60s R&B hits he wrote and produced in New Orleans studios, but they brought figures such as Paul McCartney or The Band to New Orleans to work with him.

With their collaboration born from a series of benefits last fall in New York City, where lifelong New Orleans resident Toussaint is currently living while he rebuilds his destroyed home in his swamped neighborhood, Toussaint and Costello bring the specter of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster of New Orleans onstage with them. The four-man horn section, Toussaint's guitarist Anthony "AB" Brown, and Toussaint himself are actual victims of the storm. Costello certainly brought the subject powerfully alive with his song "River In Reverse," an angry ballad he wrote specifically to perform at one of last year's benefits with Toussaint.

Costello clearly relished the experience, staying onstage almost three hours, playing a generous 34 songs and sometimes acting like little more than just another fan with the best seat in the house as he glowed watching Toussaint weave his spell.

And Toussaint is truly an under-appreciated, virtually undiscovered gem. If anything good has come out of Katrina at all it is the increased national profile his career has received as a result of benefit albums he has appeared on, television appearances including last year's Grammys (too bad the knucklehead announcer couldn't get his name right), the first such appearance in his near 50 years in the record business, since he got his start putting piano parts on Fats Domino records while the '50s rock and roll star was on tour. He has long been a national treasure, just unknown outside New Orleans and record business circles.

Wearing a conservative tailored suit, socks and sandals, he presided over the keyboard with a dignity and authority uncommon outside the classical world. When he returned for an encore with his solo piano musings on the works of Professor Longhair, another little known New Orleans pianist, long dead, "Me and Tipitina," Toussaint held the crowd in the palm of his hand as he waltzed them through a piece that can only best be described as chamber R&B. He spun delicate and airy glissandos that hung in the air like lace.

Costello, standing by the side of the piano as entranced by what he was hearing as anybody, then explained that he asked Toussaint to transpose that piece and he wrote lyrics to the music to create a song called "Ascension Day," which they performed like they were in a cathedral. It was a solemn, sublime moment of artistic transcendence; the meeting many worlds, blending into one heartbeat, a profound convergence that held the standing crowd hushed.

Costello has been on an amazing creative roll in the past few years. He is still performing his first ballet score with symphony orchestras across the country and did an album with a 52-piece jazz orchestra with Charlie Mingus and Billy Strayhorn covers mingled with new versions of his old tunes. He has collaborated in the recent past with R&B songwriter Jerry Ragavoy, who co-wrote "Piece of My Heart," and, even more memorably, did an entire album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory, in 1998.

But with Toussaint, Costello has really unearthed something special. Songs off their album such as the obscure "Who's Gonna Help the Brother," "Tears, Tears and More Tears," or "Nearer To You" were pure Toussaint classics, lingering forgotten in his massive back catalog. How Freedom For the Stallion has been lying around unused for all these years is a complete mystery; it's not as if the Pointer Sisters, Glen Campbell, Labelle and others haven't had big records with Toussaint. In the record business he hasn't been an unknown since Al Hirt made a No. 1 record out of his instrumental Java in 1964.

But his stunning remakes of Costello's songs were the treasures of the evening. He made "Poisoned Rose" sound like a forgotten Fats Domino blues. He gave "Clubland" this big, booming Cubano riff, which Costello keyboardist Steve Nieve matched on the piano, while Toussaint took over the organ for the sassy, brassy version. His supple, sweet high harmonies softened the sometimes harsh sound of Costello's gritty delivery. It was the big, billowing, seductive sound of Toussaint -- Elvis at the fore -- that had them jumping out of their seats.

The fans that came Tuesday may have been making a leap of faith since the new album has only been out a couple of weeks and has hardly been pounding from the radio anywhere or selling off the front counter at Tower Records. But Costello has tapped something very potent and vital in this historic collaboration.

With the future of the city itself something of a question mark, Costello and Toussaint are keeping New Orleans culture on the front lines. And it never needed to be there more.

© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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San Francisco Chronicle, June 21, 2006


Joel Selvin reviews Elvis Costello & The Imposters with Allen Toussaint and The Crescent City Horns, Tuesday, June 20, 2006, Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA.

Images

Photos by Kurt Rogers.
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2006-06-21 San Francisco Chronicle photo 02 kr.jpg


2006-06-21 San Francisco Chronicle photo 03 kr.jpg


2006-06-21 San Francisco Chronicle photo 04 kr.jpg
Photos by Kurt Rogers.


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