By Mark Guarino
When Katrina slammed into New Orleans last fall, it silenced the music making there only temporarily. What rose up soon after were mostly tribute collections, either recordings of old songs cast with the light of the human drama still to unfold, or new songs hastily written to capture the moment.
The best — if that’s an appropriate term considering the context — collection of post-Katrina music from New Orleans is “The River in Reverse” (Verve Forecast), a collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, who is single-handedly responsible for writing, arranging and producing many of the best known songs to ever come out of that city’s golden period of R&B and funk in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They performed the album together, plus many songs from their respective catalogs of songs, Sunday at Ravinia. This two-hour, 40-minute show took from the past but lived in a very pleasurable present.
Name an opera company, jazz orchestra or string quartet and Costello probably cranked out an album with them at some point in the past few years. His style hopping broadened his horizons but bored most of his fans. The Toussaint album feels like a more natural fit. At Ravinia, the many strains of New Orleans music filtered through the songs. A four-man horn section helped bring a bleary undertone while peppering other songs with life. Toussaint’s new arrangements made old Costello staples sound like a street parade. And Costello, known more for his clever rhymes than his voice, stepped out as a first-rate soul singer, wringing either pathos or ecstasy from every syllable in ways that were not subtle but were extremely profound.
Sitting quietly at the grand piano, Toussaint, 68, looked like a sideman yet he wouldn’t be mistaken for one. When he sang, or in his many decadent piano fills, he channeled a gentle dignity. The interchanging vocals and frisky piano leads of early era chestnuts like “A Certain Girl” or “Working in a Coalmine” were perfectly simple and playful.
The new arrangements of old Costello hits mostly invigorated them (although a quasi-orchestral “Allison” was particularly pretty drippy). The pairing worked best on songs that were written in the heat of Katrina’s destruction.
“Broken Promise Land” opened with a blast of horns and guitar distortion, both slamming the brakes so Costello’s solo vocal could mournfully sing the title lament. On “The River in Reverse,” a guitar vamp led to gospel heights with Costello testifying, “in the name of the father and the son/in the name of gasoline and a gun.” With three encores, the show ended with “The Sharpest Thorn,” a mournful Celtic ballad with many reprisals.
At times the old songs proved timely. Toussaint’s Civil Rights-era song, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” asked a more poignant question for today: “What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about?” Toussaint sang to which Costello answered, leading the crowd to join him, “it didn’t ring long.”