Allen Toussaint @ The Pabst Theater

By - Feb 19th, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Blaine Schultz

After an quick instrumental tune to warm up, Allen Toussaint ran through a medley of some of the hits he wrote and produced for other artists – just in case you didn’t know who he is. In 2006 Toussaint collaborated with Elvis Costello on a post-Katrina album and tour that refreshed the public’s memory that since the 1950s Toussaint has written and produced a swath of music that remains quintessentially New Orleans. “A Certain Girl,” “Mother In Law,” “Fortune Teller,” “Working in a Coalmine,” “Lipstick Traces,” “Brickyard Blues,” “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?,” “Yes We Can” and “Southern Nights.”

While fire engines swarmed City Hall Saturday night at the Pabst Theater, Tousaint and his four-piece group moved seamlessly from regional hits to blink-and you-missed-it classical interludes to anecdotes introducing many of the tunes. In his double-breasted suit and Birkenstock shoes, Toussaint comes off as the personification of erudite and just plain cool. As a vocalist he’s laidback and funky. It’s easy to see him as living through vocalists like Lee Dorsey and Ernie K-Doe while settled into the studio life of a writer/producer/arranger. But this night’s rare performance proved he’s equally adept on stage. The audience could have used a dance floor.

As a musician, Toussant’s piano playing is heir to the great Professor Longhair, and it is that rolling lefthand rhumba that anchors many of the tunes. But he also exhibits his genius in re-imagining Longhair’s rollicking “Tipitina” in a minor key as “Ascension Day” on the Costello collaboration, The River in Reverse. At the Pabst Toussaint alternated between the two. While he’s been covered by everyone from The Yardbirds to Devo to Warren Zevon (not to mention arranging horns for the Band), arguably Glen Campbell’s cover of “Southern Nights” is where most listener’s have come into contact with Toussaint’s music. He ended his set with long spoken introduction to the song, reminiscing of family trips out to the Louisiana countryside as a child to visit relatives, all the while playing variations on the tune’s melody. The band members listened with their heads bowed as if transported as well. It was one of the few moments all night the audience was still.

Opener Pieta Brown played a short set of her folk and blues tunes accompanied by guitar guru Bo Ramsey. As the daughter of esteemed songwriter Greg Brown, Pieta is challenged to move away from the old man’s shadow – but she is well on her way. Her singing coupled with Ramsey’s filigrees created some hypnotic moments that took the listener into movies her lyrics created. Songs about escaping small-town life and characters with a “train in his head just looking for a track” suggest her career is moving in the right direction. VS

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