IN TUNE: In his glittery satin threads, Allen Toussaint looked, as always, like a Mardi Gras chief gone uptown for the first of two City Winery gigs. As always, he commanded respect and admiration — through both his dazzling virtuosity on the Steinway and his genteel, open-hearted charm.
It’s no stretch to say that Toussaint is one of the 20th century’s musical giants.
And although he’s made his fortune writing and producing hit songs for others (“Working in the Coalmine,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Southern Nights”), he has become so polished, accomplished and talented an entertainer at 74 years young that he could just as well be playing Lincoln Center as he could JazzFest – or Tipitina’s.
Toussaint’s unique style derives from some of the greatest influences in musical history, just about all from his native New Orleans: King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker, Tuts Washington – and his beloved Professor Longhair.
Toussaint, who briefly lived in New York after Katrina nearly destroyed his home, will frequently vary the right-handed melody with left-handed syncopation without missing a beat, before taking solos through various twists and turns, trills and arpeggios. What begins as a welcome barroom sing- or clap-along suddenly soars into a gliss-filled mini-concerto.
Sometimes it’s jazz or ragtime, other times boogie-woogie, barrelhouse or even pop. Sometimes Toussaint plays them all in the very same song.
Octaves change, as do signatures. Yet the various styles blend beautifully into a musical gumbo between Toussaint’s still-nimble fingers.
Eclectic? How about a bit of tango, along with classical stanzas and nursery rhymes mixed in, not to mention a cascading snippet of “Happy Birthday” for one of the down-front attendees?
An appreciative crowd cheered, whooped, whistled and applauded every clever maneuver.
Those new to the living legend could see (and hear) what keeps the faithful returning. The latter got all they wanted, as usual, from “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” to “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” to the call-and-response “A Certain Girl,” part of a medley that included “Mother-in-Law,” “Fortune Teller” (made popular by the Stones) and “Working in a Coal Mine.” ( continued below )
SHOUT OUT: Toussaint’s opener both nights, Seth Walker, likes to joke about the “great closers” he gets for his shows. Truth is: He’s as much closer material as anyone.
He swings. He rocks. He boogies. Some songs shimmy, others shake. Most of ’em shine.
Yet Walker’s at his strongest when he brings it down, clutching emotion delicately with heart-tuggers such as “In the Meantime,” “All This Love” and “Rosalie,” or the plaintive, Ray Charles-like “What Now,” all from his sumptuous new CD, “Time Can Change.”
Walker’s set was too short to hit on the album’s various gems (try not moving in time to the reggae-tinged “Wait a Minute”). But he got those who were hearing him for the first time to instantly sing along to the finger-poppin’ “More Days Like This”:
A Southern bluesman who knows note from nuance, Walker brings out the beauty that lies between phrases, the way Chet Baker did. Nothing is ever excessive or overdone. Small wonder that one of his earliest influences was Willie Nelson.
The subtlety is everything, both when Seth Walker sings and plays. Pay attention or you’ll miss it — at least until he’s closing his own New York City gigs.
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Toussaint’s once-familiar tight, thick curls have given way to a gray pillow, but he still has the genuine smile, not to mention the amazing chops.
Backed by the solid Roland Guerin on 6-string bass and Herman LeBeaux (Toussaint’s son-in-law) on drums, Toussaint flew out of the gate, hopping from one song to the next like he was double-parked.
He then eased into lovely, extended versions of tunes that ranged from boppin’ to bluesy, beginning with a languid rendering of the stirring New Orleans standard, “St. James Infirmary.”
Toussaint cleverly followed with the reggae skip of “Soul Sister” before turning to that moment in his recent shows that easily brings tears.
Longtime fans knew who he meant when he spoke of “a friend of everybody, a most honest spirit” who’d “had a little setback situation.”
“He’s doing a lot better now, and he’s out there again,” Toussaint said, before losing himself in “I Wave Bye Bye,” which he recorded for “Quiet About It,” a tribute album to singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester, who has waged a so-far successful battle against esophageal cancer.
Soon after came another staple of Toussaint’s shows: a spellbinding piano interlude.
Essentially a seamless mashup of musical influences, the performance included snippets of standards – from “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” to “Tea for Two” — as well as ragtime, blues and boogie riffs, nods to Rachmaninoff and other classical composers … even a sampling of Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Folks whooped and hollered as Toussaint rolled through an extended riff from “The Music Man.”
His backing duo quickly fell in line as he poured into “Tipitina,” the crowd virtually roaring as one.
For all his formal training, Toussaint is extremely playful, both in his stylings and in his connection with the audience. It’s difficult to imagine that he finally took to touring full-time only eight years ago after only occasional one-off gigs, most of them in the Crescent City.
“If we can’t bring you to New Orleans,” Toussaint told the City Winery crowd during “Mr. Mardi Gras,” “then we’ll bring New Orleans to you.”
He then got up, pulled out a leather bag and tossed Mardi Gras masks to the crowd.
He also sang and played a letter-perfect, rolling version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”
As always, Toussaint closed the show with the song that he’s said reminds him of spending time with his Creole relatives in rural Louisiana, sitting on porches, whiling nights away with songs and stories: “Southern Nights.”
Disappointing that he played it without the spoken reminiscence about those times. It’s a beautiful story. Still, the song has such a soothing, uplifting arrangement — an always-welcome friend that makes you smile from inside.
Still, the resulting applause was loud and sustained enough for a two-song encore that found a returned Toussant bluesier than he’d been all night, stretching out with his cohorts on Leonard Feather’s “Long Long Journey.”
It was a nice touch of a nightcap, particularly from a man whose music brings so much joy.
The Toussaint file:
Writing hits for Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville, The Showmen, Lee Dorsey, among others
Having his songs recorded by, among others, Otis Redding, the Yardbirds, Warren Zevon, Ringo Starr, Robert Palmer, the O’Jays, Alex Chilton, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Hollies, Robert Plant/Alison Krauss and Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”)
Writing, producing for Paul McCartney and Wings (“Venus and Mars”), Labelle (“Lady Marmalade”), The Meters, Dr John, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, B.J. Thomas, Willy DeVille, Sandy Denny and Solomon Burke, among others
Arranging horns for The Band’s “Cahoots,” “Rock of Ages” and “The Last Waltz”
Inductions: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1998), Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (2009), Blues Hall of Fame (2011)
2006: Colloborated with Elvis Costello on “The River in Reverse,” the first major studio session in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.