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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Barbican, London, June 4th 2007
Preservaton Hall
Fact: January 14th is Allen Toussaint day in New Orleans. It’s also his birthday, in 1938. He is one of the giants of New Orleans rhythm and blues, as writer, performer, producer and arranger. And he’s in London at the Barbican, on its huge stage, shrunk to a more intimate feel by shrouds and clever and pretty lighting (“you want to see what it looks like from up here”). Actually I thought he was top of the bill (maybe should have been as it turned out) but apparently not. The tickets were largely booked as a result of the Photographer’s enthusiasm for his contributions to the Katrina benefit album Our New Orleans (which surely every Whiskyfun reader has a copy of?), and even more so his impressive 2006 album with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse. He’s at the Barbican’s Steinway, which is so miked up it looks like a patient in intensive care. But he makes good use of it. Here is a pianist who learnt at the feet of the great Professor Longhair, but who mixes hard New Orleans syncopation (this is the man who produced the Meter’s syncopated masterpiece ‘Cissy strut’, so believe me he’s a master of the art) with a flowing lyricism that gives him a quite unique style. And he’s written for, played with and produced a who’s who of twentieth century music.
His set reads like an autobiography as he talks and jokes us through his career with his own compositions like ‘Fortune teller’ (covered by the Rolling Stones – “I love the Rolling Stones, they showed me the way to the bank for the first time”), Lee Dorsey’s massive hit ‘Working in a coal mine’ and ‘Mother in law’ and ‘A certain girl’, both hits for ‘Emperor of the World’ Ernie K-Doe. It’s charmingly self-depreciating: “This is a song I wrote for myself, it sold five copies, then the Pointer Sisters recorded it and they sold lots of copies” – he’s talking about ‘Happiness’. By the way, the Pointer Sisters’ first hit was ‘Yes I can can’, which you can hear Toussaint singing wonderfully on My New Orleans.
Costello Toussaint
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint
He plays his instrumental from that album, ‘Tipitina and me’, which is a must have for any New Orleans piano enthusiast. He tells us about Frankie Miller “one of the most soulful people I’ve ever met – but dyaknow, he always used to carry warm beers ‘round in that valise of his” before singing ‘Brickyard blues’ which famously rhymes ‘mellow’ with ‘Jell-O’ – nice. Mr Toussaint ended up in serous reminiscence mode, first singing Prince Partridge’s ‘Lazy Man’ – “I remember I used to listen to that at home on the radio” – and then (as the sound desk waved frantically at him to stop) a long narrative (with melodious keyboards) of childhood visits to relatives in the country, and sultry evenings on the porch, which slowly turned into ‘Southern Nights’, from the 1975 album of the same name. Despite, or perhaps because of, its laid-back fashion this is a thoroughly engrossing hour, during which it would be easy to miss the remarkable yet understated keyboard playing. It certainly didn’t deserve the gratuitously racist remark made by one rather fat (and I may say rather ugly) south Londoner who was sitting nearby. He should have been thrown out.
New Orleans Street   I assume he’d come to see the ‘main’ act, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, although I’m sure they would have found his remark equally offensive. Maybe they’d heard it and that was why they chose to delay their arrival on stage by ten minutes or so while they played a poorly made film on the history of the Hall and the band, or maybe it was just bad judgement. Either way, it quickly had the audience wriggling in their seats (they were suffering from a severe dose of tedium tremens) and pretty much killed a nice atmosphere. To make it worse I would have to observe that when the band did slowly take the stage they didn’t look particularly pleased to be there – they were smiling by the end, but it did take some time. As for the music, well its predictability - tradition and predictability are not the same thing – its predictability confirmed that I’ve been right not to visit the Hall when in New Orleans.
It’s one of the must-see tourist venues, and whilst everyone would endorse its mission to educate children in the City’s musical heritage, no one really needs to endure a rather turgid and formulaic work-through of old favourites such as ‘If I had my life to be over’, ‘Down to New Orleans’, ‘Shake that thing’ and the like. Nope, it really didn’t press my buttons, or at least not until Toussaint joined them for a splendidly soulful ‘Closer walk with thee’. And then it ended with an unsurprising encore as the band marched round the Barbican gathering a desultory following of badly-coordinated exhibitionists who all ended up strutting their stuff (London style I should add) on the stage.
Such a shame. Toussaint could have carried the show on his own and frankly the Preservation Hall Jazz Band did little other than steal an hour and a half of my fairly busy life. But you take the rough with the smooth, something we should remember when we consider that most of these guys lived through Hurricane Katrina and in their own ways are trying to rebuild the city of their birth. For that they should all enjoy our support. - Nick Morgan (concert and city photographs by Kate)

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