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Whirlaway: An Evening with Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint at the Lyric Theater, Los Angeles, May 19, 2014.

Allen Toussaint at the Lyric Theater, Los Angeles, May 19, 2014.

Allen Toussaint’s trio performance at the Lyric Theater in Los Angeles had all the intimacy of Le Bon Temps Roulez or any number of other New Orleans clubs where interaction with the audience is not a choice but a necessity. With a capacity of 250, and most of that standing, the patrons are going to be part of the gig. The composer of “On Your Way Down,” “Freedom for the Stallion,” “Lipstick Traces,” and so many more quality tunes entered to the accompaniment of his energetic rhythm section and an audience that surrounded him with expectation. The 75-year old legend, who seemingly produced most of the important music that came out of New Orleans for several decades, immediately launched into a piano figure that recalled his own “Whirlaway” from the late 50s but threw in some Professor Longhair for spice. So he did not disappoint. By night’s end, snatches of everything from Tchaikovsky to “Sesame Street” found their way into the show, but underpinning it all was the piano style of the Crescent City, rollicking, rumbling, playing with time in the funkiest of ways. This was the real deal.

By the time Toussaint began distributing Mardi Gras party favors (I scored a miniature purple parasol), the audience had been treated to “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” “Lipstick Traces,” “Tipitina and Me,” “Mother in Law” and medleys cramming more feel-good r&b into the set and creating a kind of delirium that was a second line of the soul. Toussaint’s haunting rendering of “St. James Infirmary,” also covered on his standout jazz album from 2009, The Bright Mississippi, evoked the graveyard to come, but his elongated “Southern Nights” wrapped the show with the kind of rhythmic vitality only hinted at in Glen Campbell’s famous version. Inviting an audience member to play a few choruses with him added to the festivities. Toussaint’s inventive playing, wit (encouraging the crowd to sing the chorus of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans”: “C’mon now—all white people know this one”), and elegant singing made for a most satisfying evening for music fans who do know what it means to miss Toussaint’s home town.

The adjacent Voila! Gallery, sponsor of a new concert series of which Toussaint’s show was the debut, features Joseph Cornell-style wall art, funky cabinet of curiosities installations of vintage artifacts, and contemporary photography exhibitions well worth the time.

 

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