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Clip: Katrina spawned merger of Toussaint and Costello

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  • Carl Z.
    Katrina spawned merger of Toussaint and Costello
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2006

      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."

      A showcase

      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."
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