If you bundled together all of the recent benefits for the city of New Orleans very few could rival the sobering, shimmering, ecstatic River in Reverse, the wonder-stroke union of Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, which arrived in Canada for the first time Monday night at the Orpheum.
The pairing of Costello and Toussaint, the fabled New Orleans singer, songwriter and pianist, for the first time since 1989, wasn't ever meant to be a minor operation. They matched Costello's band, the Imposters, with Toussaint's Crescent City Horns, plus his guitarist Anthony Brown.
Together, 10 men mounted the stage in a night of surging, soaring intensity. The River in Reverse, their recent CD, was only the starting point: the scope and substance of the night stretched back to old-time New Orleans and up into huge swaths of Costello's own, multifaceted songbook.
Indeed, the sometime British Columbian walked out with his three-piece — organist Steve Nieve, bassist Davey Faragher, drummer Peter Thomas — and tore into "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding": a fabulous, muddy mix that turned far more precise as the horns arrived and the night progressed.
"Congratulations, dad!" someone yelled out. "A new baby!" shouted another, noting the news that his wife, Diana Krall, is expecting a child in December.
Costello hesitated, then looked at his watch.
"Does this make me Canadian, then?" he said to wild applause.
Costello was certainly centre stage all night, retelling the story of the project, and the first time he and Toussaint played together again, just after Hurricane Katrina, at a Lincoln Center benefit, before going into a duet on "Freedom for the Stallion."
There was so much to watch, and listen to. Costello's own inspired, chainsaw rhythm guitar playing, trombonist Sam Williams's towering solo turns, and his moonwalk.
And there was of course Toussaint himself.
"How come you sing all the vocals on this record, you big-headed swine," Costello recalled someone asking him, before explaining that Toussaint was just too "self-effacing."