Legendary New Orleans jazz singer Allen Toussaint brought his vaunted musical gifts to Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, on Dec. 18 to a rousing crowd of several hundred fans. The singer/songwriter/composer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer delivered “An Evening with Allen Toussaint.” True to the title, the musician’s quiet and unassuming demeanor was the perfect complement to the living-room design of the stage. The tile floor and frame house outline with musicians and intimate portraits in the background created a comfortable feel.
Toussaint himself took to the stage shortly after his band members: Breeze on Saxophone, Chris on Bass and Tommy on Drums. Toussaint, whose hair is largely silver save for peppered roots, was attired in a black and white-striped suit punctuated by a hot pink tie.
One of the most influential figures in New Orleans R&B, despite his understated look and demeanor, Toussaint has shyed away from the spotlight throughout his illustrious career. Nevertheless, he has carved a distinct niche in contemporary music. Many his songs are now so familiar they are like branches on contemporary music’s tree: “Working on a Coal Mine,” “Yes We Can Can,” and “Walking with Mr. Lee” were all oft-covered tunes that he wrote. Artists as varied as the Neville Brothers and Rolling Stones covered his song “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette).” In the ’60s and ’70s, he also oversaw the productions of Fats Domino, Neville Brothers and Jesse Hill, whose “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” in 1960, was a R&B top five hit.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote numerous hits for artists, including Lee Dorsey, Willie West, The Showmen, The Meters and Solomon Burke.
At the opening of his 90-minute set, Toussaint performed “Mother-In-Law,” an R&B number he wrote for Ernie K-Doe in the early 1960s. The song became a smash at the time and in the hands of its original composer, it still manages to be both musically sophisticated and cunningly farcical as he sings about meeting his girlfriends’ mother: “The worst person I know/ mother-in law, mother-in law/she worries me so/If she’d leave us alone/we would have a happy home/sent from down below.” Despite the cynicism in the lyrics, Toussaint performs it perfectly as the humor in the song downplays the biting connotations attached.
Toussaint’s glorious piano work was on full display while he performed “Thank you Lord,” a song featuring an elaborate opening solo where his piano duels rhythmically with the bass, coaxing the hesitant saxophone to join the fray.
The range of Toussaint’s talents is considerable, at moments performing gentle blues hymns on traveling with his father to the country to visit their Creole relatives in “Southern Night,” then unleashing an jazz-infused swing rave-up “American Ladies are Hot,” a song that allowed saxophonist Breeze to lead the tune as the drums, bass and piano all bounce off, creating a sound of Funk in its infancy.
He sang “Yes We Can Can” next, a song that sounds radically different with saxophone draped over the throbbing bass and chiming piano. When Toussaint and Breeze repeated the chorus in sync with each other at various vocal speeds, it was truly a time-stopping moment.
Toward the conclusion of his set, Toussaint briefly spoke about the Katrina disaster, and about what he plans to do during the rebuilding of his own home in New Orleans.
“Right now I’m staying in New York until my home is ready in New Orleans,” said Toussaint. “I plan to return when that time arrives. I’ve lived in New Orleans all my life, I cannot stop now.”
Toussaint also expressed his appreciation for the residents of Chicago, who gave their time, energy and funds to assisting in the Katrina relief effort.
“I am deeply grateful for all the support we in New Orleans received from Chicago during the events of last year,” said Tossaint.
He also talked about his collaboration with Rock ‘n’ Roll chameleon Elvis Costello on the recently released album River in Reverse.
“Costello and I have actually known each other for a while; however, when Katrina occurred, we began doing benefit concerts together to help raise funds for the rebuilding,” said Toussaint. “I had written several songs with themes dealing with the subject of unity and spirituality that we both agreed would make for a timely recording, given the events of the prior year and a half.”
The Allen Toussaint concert was a one-night-only special engagement that represented his first intimate Chicago appearance since he began touring with Elvis Costello earlier in the year. The concert perfectly encapsulated Toussaint’s nearly 60-year career, reminding those outside of his native New Orleans of his musical genius.