(Above: A snippet of Allen Toussaint’s cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” from one of his regular appearances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
At his first-ever performance in Kansas City, New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint transformed the Folly Theater into a place where “mardi gras” was a verb and Fat Tuesday occurred every night.
The soon-to-be 72-year-old songwriter, arranger and producer delivered around 100 minutes of material he wrote for others, recorded himself or wished he had written for a nearly sold-out crowd.
From the first chords of the opening vamp it was obvious that Toussaint and his four-piece band were determined to melt a little of the mounds of snow stacked outside. Thanks to the jumping introduction, the party was already in full swing by the time Toussaint launched into “There’s A Party Going On.”
Although Toussaint’s heart lies in the Big Easy, his influences were all over the map. “Sweet Touch of Love” ended with Toussaint adapting the melody of “An American in Paris” over a modified Bo Diddley beat. The effervescent “Soul Sister” moved between a stately melody and calypso rhythms and felt like the type of number Billy Joel and tried – and failed – to write at least 20 or 30 times.
The most impressive juxtaposition was Toussaint’s classical piano solo during “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On). For several minutes the maestro interspersed snippets of well-known concertos against contemporaries Professor Longhair and Dave Brubeck.
Two songs stemmed from Toussaint’s recent jazz album, “The Bright Mississippi.” The title song, a Thelonious Monk number, was a syncopated throwback to the Dixieland tradition of New Orleans jazz and featured saxman Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on clarinet. It was followed by “St. James Infirmary,” which found the drummer slapping his knees and snapping his fingers to keep time while Toussaint and his barefoot guitarist traded licks.
Toussaint may not be a household name, but the artists he’s worked with are. His songs have been recorded by everyone from British invasion bands like the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and the Who to soul singers such as O’Jays, Lee Dorsey and the Pointer Sisters, to artists ranging from Jerry Garcia and Iron Butterfly to Warren Zevon and Devo. Toussaint has also recorded with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, the Band, Dr. John and the Meters.
The set’s centerpiece was a medley several of Toussaint’s best-known hits, including “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Fortune Teller.” It was followed by his most-recorded number, “Get Out of My Life Woman.”
Between several numbers, Toussaint told stories about working with Ernie K. Doe and Costello, plugged upcoming TV appearances, and recalled his impression of a chocolate commercial set to his song “Sweet Touch of Love.” The stories were entertaining on their own, but the beautiful beds of chords Toussaint created under his monologues made especially scintillating.
The night’s only flaw was a slightly sour mix, which buried Toussaint’s piano and vocals during the opening number. The piano was quickly lifted to its proper place over the drums and guitar, but the vocals remained faint throughout the evening.
After sharing the spirit of Mardi Gras, Toussaint closed his main set by going one step further. Walking along the lip of the stage, he threw out beads and masks and searched for the perfect girth to receive a t-shirt. After a few moments, the band returned and Toussaint delivered a breathtaking, unaccompanied performance of “American Tune.” Toussaint’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina added extra resonance to Paul Simon’s lyrics, and the pin-drop quiet crowd burst into approving applause as the last note faded.
Setlist: There’s A Party Going On, Whatever Happened to Rock and Roll?, Sneaking Sally Through the Alley
Sweet Touch of Love, Who’s Going to Help a Brother Get Further?, Soul Sister, Bright Mississippi, St. James Infirmary, Medley: A Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/Fortune Teller/Working in a Coal Mine, Get Out of My Life Woman > Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On), Mr. Mardi Gras, Southern Nights. Encore: American Tune, Shoorah Shoorah > Fun Time.