There was politics, outrage and a determined, jubilant spirit of renewal in everything Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint sang and played together at the Beacon Theater in New York on July 10th, the first of their two nights there celebrating the release of their collaborative masterpiece, The River in Reverse. But Costello ensured that no one misunderstood what is still at stake nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina — the day-to-day survival and uncertain future of the Gulf Coast and, in particular, New Orleans, its culture and struggling, displaced people — when he bolted on stage with his band, the Imposters, and opened with a furious tear into a song with which he usually ends his own shows: Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding?”
It was a racing start to an extraordinary marathon — nearly three hours long, with no intermission — in which Costello and Toussaint, further armed with the latter’s hometown brass section the Crescent City Horns and rhythm guitarist Anthony Brown, not only performed virtually the whole of River but fully explored the full promise of their friendship and natural creative empathy. Nine of the vintage Costello numbers in the set list, had new horn charts written by Toussaint for the tour, including the anguished King of America ballad “The Poisoned Rose” and an especially turbulent “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea,” in which the Crescent City Horns seemed to be blowing back at Katrina over the Imposters’ rhythmic fisticuffs. Costello, in turn, gave Toussaint big room to show off his long life in Louisiana soul. Instead of cramming the gold into jukebox-style medleys, as he usually does in his annual Jazz Fest appearances, Toussaint — looking both down-home and elegant in a dark suit, white sox and sandals — took full-length romps through “A Certain Girl,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Brickyard Blues.” He also seemed happily carried away in his solo-piano segment, a tribute to his mentor Professor Longhair — although to be fair, Costello kept egging him on to play more.
The River in Reverse is two records in one: part-Toussaint tribute, with new readings of songs Toussaint wrote in the Sixties and Seventies, mostly for the great New Orleans singer Lee Dorsey; and part-forward march, with songs Costello and Toussaint wrote together in a week of breakneck brotherhood last fall. But on stage, as on the album, you could hear the easy blend of each man’s singular gifts: Costello’s literate fire and the effortless R&B body language of Toussaint’s grand piano rolls in “Ascension Day” and “Broken Promiseland”; the heavy and unmistakeably contemporary menace Costello brought to Toussaint’s early-Seventies morality lesson “On Your Way Down.”
The night ended with a lengthy encore that veered from Costello’s “Clubland” to Toussaint’s “Yes We Can” and Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” But the most unexpected marvel was a cover that Costello and Toussaint had only worked up a few days earlier, for a Paul Simon tribute evening in Montreal. With Costello strumming acoustic guitar and Steve Nieve adding a little church at the Hammond organ, Toussaint sang Simon’s “American Tune” in a gingerly whisper with his hands folded in front of him, as if in prayer: “Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken/And many times confused/Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken/And certainly misused/Oh, but I’m alright, I’m alright/I’m just weary to my bones.”
It was a powerful dignified admission of exhaustion by a man who had lost so much — his home, much of his city — and, like his family and neighbors there and in exile, refuses to give up. And it was the perfect answer to the question Costello raised, so loud, at the top of the show: What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.