Katrina spawned merger of Toussaint and Costello
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published June 11, 2006
Only six days after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans last
summer, Elvis Costello found himself preparing for a concert at the
Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle.
The televised images of devastation from the South were fresh in his
mind, and he searched for a song or two that could speak to the
tragedy without coming off as preachy, trite or opportunistic. He
ended up choosing two relatively obscure gems written and produced
decades before by the New Orleans soul master Allen Toussaint:
"Freedom for the Stallion" and "All These Things."
Costello didn't know it at the time, but the performance would be the
first step toward an album-long collaboration with Toussaint on "The
River in Reverse" (Verve), with the U.K. artist singing seven of the
New Orleans legend's songs and co-writing another five new tunes with
him. (In addition, Toussaint and Costello are embarking on a rare
national tour, which arrives Sunday at Ravinia.)
Racism and greed
As performed in 1971 by Toussaint's longtime foil, the sublime soul
singer Lee Dorsey, "Freedom for the Stallion" was a meditation on
racism and greed. "They got men making laws that destroy other
men/They've made money `God'/It's a doggone sin/Oh, Lord, you got to
help us find the way." Costello simply saw it as a song that's
"essentially about dignity."
"I was trying to sing something that had a connection, to send some
good wishes out, and that song came to mind," he says. "I had never
sung it before that day."
A few days after Bumbershoot, Costello performed the song again at a
New Orleans benefit in New York, this time with Toussaint. The
producer said he had all but forgotten the song until Costello
suggested it for the performance.
"It was a great insight," says the 68-year-old composer, whose home
was flooded and recording studio destroyed by Katrina. "Elvis heard
that song in a way that allowed it to serve a different purpose than
it did when I wrote it."
Costello says Toussaint was fresh on his mind because he had performed
the previous spring with the producer at the New Orleans Jazz and
Heritage Festival. There the two artists had renewed acquaintances
after more than a decade apart; they had collaborated twice before,
most recently in 1988 for Costello's "Spike" album.
By working with Toussaint, Costello joined a long list of musicians
who had come to the producer's door. During the '60s and '70s,
Toussaint was the go-to man for the New Orleans sound, a
behind-the-scenes giant who wrote, arranged and produced countless
hits. His rollicking, Caribbean-influenced piano playing made him the
primary heir to Professor Longhair, and his distinctive horn voicings
were heard on sessions for the Meters, Art Neville, Lee Dorsey, Chris
Kenner and others. Later the likes of Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, The
Band and Sandy Denny sought him out as a collaborator.
The breadth of that catalog became once again apparent to Costello, a
longtime fan, when Toussaint performed a handful of rare solo shows in
New York in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. "I had nowhere to go,
my house was gone," Toussaint says. "I wanted to play."
Costello was blown away by the shows and hatched the idea of recording
an album with Toussaint built on the master's lesser-known songs,
including "Freedom for the Stallion" and "All These Things."
Bring it on
Toussaint received the idea enthusiastically, though he acknowledges
he was surprised by the songs Costello wanted to record. "It was sort
of alarming, because I realized Elvis knows more songs that I've
written than I do," the producer says. "I was totally surprised by how
much Elvis knew about my music. He went for songs that weren't the
most popular; instead he went for the `B,' `C,' `D' and `F' sides. But
when Elvis sang them, he gave them an `A'-side performance."
Costello's choices are particularly astute because, like "Freedom for
the Stallion," the likes of Toussaint's "Nearer to You," "Who's Gonna
Help Brother Get Further?" and "Tears, Tears and More Tears" resonate
against the tragic events of Katrina. The effort was deepened by the
presence of Costello's band, the Impostors, and Toussaint's guitarist,
Anthony "AB" Brown, and horn section.
Though the musicians had barely been acquainted, the first recording
session in Hollywood went smoothly, producing three master takes in 25
minutes. At the center of the sound was Toussaint's distinctive piano,
and the arrangements hewed closely to the producer's original
"If you put Allen's piano at the center of any band, a band is going
to respond," Costello says. "That piano is so central to these
compositions, especially the ones that have so many great elements in
the original arrangement, we didn't really have to rearrange them in
any conscious way. We just had to bring our own voices and
instrumental touch to them."
The respect for Toussaint was so high that the Impostors' fine
keyboardist, Steve Nieve, switched to Hammond B-3 organ. "We had two
pretty good keyboard players talking to one another," Costello says.
"That was an element I really enjoyed responding to."
For the second week of sessions last December, producer Joe Henry was
able to secure a studio in New Orleans; it would be one of the first
working sessions for musicians in the city after the hurricane.
"There was emotion, but it wasn't sad," Toussaint says. "It was
wonderful to know we had an opportunity to do it here, and do one of
the most important things New Orleans is noted for: music."
The album is best heard as a showcase for Toussaint's songs, and the
New Orleans sound in general. Costello's strained vocals aren't
particularly well-suited to this distinctive brand of Southern soul,
with its slippery phrasing and syncopated rhythms. The album likely
would have been more successful artistically had Costello taken the
producer's role, and left the singing to New Orleans veterans more
attuned to the music's idiosyncrasies. But then the song selection
might have been more predictable, gravitating toward the hits rather
than the obscurities Costello was most passionate about.
The one lead vocal that Toussaint does sing, on "Who's Gonna Help
Brother Get Further?," justifies the entire project. Though it was
written decades ago, the song speaks to a New Orleans that is still
struggling to regain its bearings, in a vernacular that is the essence
of Toussaint and the city he loves.
What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about?
Did it really ding-dong?
It must have dinged wrong
It didn't ding long
Costello loves those lines, and is justly proud of an album that would
allow that nearly forgotten song to resurface, more meaningfully than
"It's a coincidental fact that we were among the first people to get
back," he says. "There were very few studios that survived the
devastation. People are trying to get back to work, that's the most
important thing. That's why Jazz Fest was so important, to see so many
people gathered together, and it's why our tour will end in New
Orleans on the 18th of July. It's important that people take their
tours there, so that the city doesn't feel as if it's been annexed
from the rest of America. That would be crazy. The city has given so
much, and it still has much to give. There are still musicians picking
up their instruments. One would hope that there is new song coming
from them that we haven't heard yet."