The Times-Picayune: Keith Spera: 1st may 2013. Photo: David Grunfield.
Early in Tuesday night's (April 30) star-studded 75th birthday tribute to Allen Toussaint at the Harrah's Theater in New Orleans, the honoree was called on stage to accept a pair of long-overdue Grammy nominee medallions. "I don't accept this humbly," the soft-spoken Toussaint enthused. "I accept it boldly."
By "boldly," Toussaint apparently meant in his typically gracious, self-effacing manner. Even on a night dedicated to his remarkable legacy, he deflected praise toward others.
He made a point of singling out Dave Bartholomew, the 92-year-old producer and co-writer of Fats Domino's hits, in the audience. Elvis Costello, one of Tuesday's featured performers, "discovered me," Toussaint said, referring to "The River in Reverse," the album he recorded with Costello after Hurricane Katrina. "He introduced me to the world that was out there that I saw from afar. Thanks to Elvis, I saw it close up."
As Tuesday's "A Tribute to Toussaint" made clear, the world of popular music, in New Orleans and beyond, already was well-versed in Allen Toussaint long before Costello "discovered" him. As a producer, songwriter and pianist, he crafted scores of hits for a succession of New Orleans notables.
Between muddy New Orelans Jazz Fest weekends at the Fair Grounds, many of those notables dressed up to sing Toussaint's songs at Harrah's. The show, which was taped by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, benefited "New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness", the charitable organization Toussaint co-founded in the 1980s.
The NOAAHH organization has a long history of star-studded fundraiser concerts. Tuesday's show was not sold out, possibly due to a starting ticket price of $250 and an extraordinarily busy Jazz Fest week.
Those in attendance witnessed a crisply paced, 2 1/2-hour showcase of the best of classic New Orleans music.
Want to stage a first-rate, TV-worthy concert? Start with a crackerjack house band such as the one deployed Tuesday. After only one day of rehearsal, that band was air-tight.
It featured Toussaint's son Reggie on percussion and his son-in-law Herman LeBeaux Jr. on drums. Bassist Roland Guerin is a regular Toussaint sideman, as are guitarists Renard Poche and Anthony Brown.
A five-piece horn section boasted "Big" Sam Williams on trombone, Joe Fox and Tracey Griffin on trumpets, Amadee Castenell on tenor sax and Brian "Breeze" Cayolle on baritone. In fringed red dresses, Erica Falls, Elaine Foster and Lisa Foster - known collectively as ELS - provided deep-soul backing vocals.
Together, they backed a procession of local luminaries - introduced by emcee Eric Paulsen of WWL-TV -- whose careers were impacted by Toussaint.
Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack reprised his "Right Place, Wrong Time," from the 1973 Toussaint-produced album "In the Right Place." Joe Henry, the singer-songwriter who produced "The River in Reverse" and Toussaint's 2009 Grammy-nominated album "The Bright Mississippi,"sang Toussaint's "From a Whisper to a Scream."
In an early highlight that brought the cocktail-attired audience to its collective feet, pianist Jon Cleary - whose excellent 2012 album "Occapella" consisted entirely of Toussaint compositions -- thundered through "Brickyard Blues." He settled down for "Wrong Number (I'm Sorry, Goodbye)."
The nattily attired Deacon John Moore sparked an uptempo "Taint It the Truth," the Ernie K-Doe hit written and produced by Toussaint (a young Moore played guitar on the original recording). Establishing a theme for the night, Toussaint joined in on piano.
He remained there as Irma Thomas, a-glitter in a purple gown and sparkling necklace, navigated "Ruler of My Heart" and "It's Raining" - again, both originally written and produced by Toussaint. During "It's Raining," as Toussaint finished a brief piano solo, he made eye contact with Thomas; she smiled and resumed singing.
Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, who will close out the Acura Stage for the first time on Sunday's final day of Jazz Fest, stepped up to uncork "Java" - a Toussaint-composed smash for the late Al Hirt - on trumpet, as Larry Sieberth took a turn on piano. Andrews switched to trombone as Costello joined him for "On Your Way Down."
Cyril Neville stepped up for "Old Treme," which he co-wrote with Toussaint. Demonstrating why Aaron Neville considers him the best singer in the Neville family, Cyril then poured his slight frame into a brooding reimagining of "Fortune Teller," shouting like a soul singer in full torment.
In 1966, Joe Stampley fronted Shreveport rock band the Uniques on a hit cover of Toussaint's "All These Things." A decade later, Stampley, by then a prolific solo country artist, scored a No. 1 hit with a "two-step" version of "All These Things." On Tuesday, he offered both versions, with Costello singing harmony and Toussaint on piano.
By then, Toussaint - whose actual 75th birthday was Jan. 14 - had changed from a dark suit to a green one that, whether by serendipity or design, matched Costello's socks.
Costello called his association with Toussaint, whom he first met 30 years ago, a highlight of his own illustrious career. "I don't deserve the praise that he gave me," Costello said of Toussaint. "But thank you so much for applauding so loudly."
He dug into the ballad "The Greatest Love," a Toussaint-crafted hit for Lee Dorsey that resurfaced on "The River in Reserve." It was dressed up by piano flourishes courtesy of the evening's honoree and an uncharacteristically restrained solo by Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, who had temporarily replaced Brown.
Toussaint, working hard at his own tribute, finished out the night with a trio of favorites: "What Is Success?" - marked by a fine Poche guitar solo - "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)" and a final, high-stepping "Southern Nights."
Earlier, Costello introduced "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" by revealing Toussaint's initial hesitation to perform it.
"Allen said, 'There's too much of me in this song.' There is no such thing as too much Allen Toussaint."
"A Tribute to Toussaint" made that clear.