The collaboration between pop chameleon Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, the important yet relatively unknown New Orleans songwriter and pianist, is equal to some of the most memorable in music.
Like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Lester Young and Billie Holiday, Costello and Toussaint are soul mates -- sympathetic, complementary and respectful on a deeply personal level. Though each comes with his own experience, together they create a new and extraordinary presence.
This special relationship not only is evident on the new CD, The River in Reverse, but also in the concert tour that brings Costello and Toussaint to Chateau Ste. Michelle Sunday night. After a nearly three-hour show Wednesday night in Oakland, San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin reported "standing ovation after standing ovation for songs the audience had largely never heard before in an evening they won't soon forget."
The musicians also feel the power generated by the songs written by the two separately and as a team. Costello was amazed at the reception they received at the star-studded and musically diverse Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee.
"It was a wild experience," Costello said in a phone interview from California. "We were playing to a much younger audience in the middle of the afternoon. They were really listening to the music, most of which they weren't familiar with."
Many of the songs on the CD -- even some of Toussaint's older material -- reflect the post-Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Co-written, "The Sharpest Thorn" begins like a dirge and then turns into a hymn about the universality of pain and joy. It evokes an image of the Crescent City both in its high-times heyday and the tragic state of the city today.
"It came out of our conversations," Costello said. "I think Allen mentioned the fight between good and evil in the aftermath of what happened in New Orleans. But it also is about the everyday. You are out celebrating, something happens and you end up a little poorer, a little humbler."
Costello and Toussaint began this collaboration in a series of Katrina benefit concerts. But Toussaint, whose "All These Things," "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" and "River in Reverse" give the CD a '60s sense of innocence and hopefulness, is adamant that the recording is not simply a commentary on Katrina.
"I wouldn't want people to think that all of this music is about Katrina, though the music does shed light on it," Toussaint said in the interview. "The River in Reverse is applicable to the general human drama, how we deal with each other, how man is to man."
The Costello-Toussaint concert, which features Costello's band the Imposters with the Crescent City Horns and guitarist Anthony "A.B." Brown, will cover the CD, but there are surprises. Other Toussaint songs are in the mix as well as older Costello songs arranged by Toussaint.
"Some of Allen's arrangements of my songs are quite startling. The biggest surprise we got from the audience last night (the Oakland show) was after we did 'Poison Rose,' " Costello said. "Though I've written and performed from a lot of different points of view, this one is new and special for me. It's the first time I've been joyful and playful, and that could only have come from working with Allen."