RIP, Allen Toussaint. From the old blog, November 2010.
I see live music so infrequently that I feel compelled, when I do, to review it.
Plus, it appears that the local paper’s music critic was busy reviewing the Never Shot Never and The Maine show at Crocodile Rock.
So, in case anyone on the interwebs wants an opinion of the show I attended, here’s mine:
Last night I went to Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center for “New Orleans Nights,” a multi-performer concert headlined by the legendary songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint.
Most of the 900 people there were sixty-somethings who seemed to be attending because they had season tickets at Zoellner, not because they particularly longed to see the man who produced the original “Lady Marmalade.”
(Toussaint never got around to “Marmalade,” alas; that might have been entertaining. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The Joe Krown Trio (Krown on Hammond organ, Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and Russell Batiste Jr. on drums) kicked things off with four songs — two fine, Meters-y funk instrumentals, and two blues tunes with Washington on vocals.
Washington, to me, was a discovery; he maintains his own solo career as a blues performer, and I made myself a mental note to go see him if he ever blows through here on his own.
Krown plays a solid, soulful B3, while Batiste is a swinging (and entertaining) drummer — more of an ass-kicker, not one of those laid-back, minimalist Zig Modeliste kind of guys.
They were joined by trumpeter/singer Nicholas Payton, as well as a bassist and percussionist, for six more songs.
Payton is one of those young-turk jazzmen who is not content to express himself merely by rattling off chorus after chorus of bebop.
This is all well and good … but his horn playing is better than his singing or his songwriting.
Most of his vocal tunes were kinda Quiet Storm-y, and (except for one that was specifically about New Orleans) seemed to lack any specific musical or lyrical connection to the Crescent City.
Guy has both chops and ideas on the horn, though.
Break time with the grandees.
And then, Allen Toussaint took the stage for a 45-minute set that included a little of everything — some old Toussaint originals with full band accompaniment; a song or two from Toussaint’s Elvis Costello collaboration; a duet with Payton; a solo cover of “City of New Orleans;” and one of those flaky New Orleans piano solos.
New Orleans piano men have it easy in some ways.
Their style was in large part codified by the screwloose Professor Longhair, whose solos might include anything from “Danny Boy” to mutant Ninth Ward rhumbas.
So a N’awlins piano player has free rein to indulge in just about any melodic segue or tempo change he can conjure up.
Toussaint, who is a capable if not revelatory player, engaged the crowd with a lengthy musical game of three-card monte that folded in scraps of classical, boogie-woogie and no fewer than six Christmas carols — finishing, natch, with “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Toussaint’s instrumental duet with Payton followed the same deconstructive vein, taking “Summertime” down any number of avenues. At worst it was simply curious; at best it was near-mesmerizing.
I’d love to hear a tape of that someday.
(By contrast, his solo piano-and-vocal version of “City of New Orleans” was played straight. It was affecting enough, though y’know, I’ve yet to hear a version of that song with any of New Orleans’ wacky funk. I guess that would be contrary to the lyrical tone of the song, but it would be fun to hear someone try.)
At 72, Toussaint remains a more-than-serviceable singer; it surprised me that he didn’t make more of a splash as a solo performer back in the day.
The old tunes (including “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “Get Out Of My Life, Woman”) had plenty of life.
He closed with a punchy version of “Southern Nights” good enough to erase anybody’s associated memories of bell-bottoms and 8-tracks, followed by a slow blues that highlighted some tasty solos from Washington.
There are, alas, only two shows left on the “New Orleans Nights” tour — one outside Washington, D.C., and one in Toronto.
I would still recommend seeing Toussaint on his own; or the Joe Krown Trio for jazzy B3 funk; or Washington playing blues; or Payton in a setting where he just plays jazz (if he does that sort of thing.)
For $25 it was a more-than-worthwhile evening of music … not the swingingest of crowds or settings, I suppose, but so be it.