?In some key ways, New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint was the Pharrell Williams of his day: a mastermind most renowned for his producing and songwriting who also carved out a creditable performing career of his own, even if his gentlemanly persona didn’t quite have the star charisma of some of the clients who owed careers to him.
Maybe it was that humility he exuded in his late period as a performer in his own right that almost — almost — made it seem not quite fatally sad that Toussaint was not around to participate in his own tribute show Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. There’s been just enough distance since his sudden death after a gig in November at age 77 that his absence didn’t cast too heavy a pall over the proceedings, led by a couple of the performers he gave the greatest assists to in the 1960s and ’70s — Dr. John and Irma Thomas — and amped up by the relative Louisianian youth appeal of Galactic.
Far timelier than the show’s proximity to Toussaint’s death was its concurrence with the Republican National Convention. At least that was the case for the four minutes it took guest singer Cyril Neville to sing “Freedom for the Stallion,” the most poignant and oft-revived ballad of social consciousness in Toussaint’s catalog. No topical allusions or aspersions were cast from the stage, but it can be assumed that a fair amount of an L.A. crowd is going to be an anti-Trump and pro-Black Lives Matter group, and a certain charge went through the audience as Neville sang the vintage lines: “They’ve got men building fences to keep other men out/ Ignore him if he whispers and kill him if he shouts” (a verse left out in ’70s recordings by Lee Dorsey, Three Dog Night, and the Hues Corporation but revived in Elvis Costello’s 2006 joint project with Toussaint).
But the mood was more about Big Easy-ship than hardship. And the weather certainly was cooperative — which is to say, Hollywood was being hit by a tropical heat wave that made the Bowl feel like it really was next door to Tipitina’s for at least an hour after dusk. That was the hour led off by Galactic, the New Orleans funk ensemble that sports a revolving door of lead vocalists and now is most fortunate to sport the under-heralded jazz-soul singer Erica Falls, who returned later in the evening to great effect.
The Allen Toussaint Band, which you’d hope would find a way to carry on in the wake of being leaderless, reassembled to back a procession of guests. First up was Neville, the brother who got to take on “Fortune Teller,” a song that holds the distinction of being the only tune ever to be recorded by both the Stones and Who (not to mention, more recently, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss). Perhaps in deference to being in perennially drought-stricken L.A., Thomas skipped out on “It’s Raining,” one of her hit collaborations with Toussaint, but did get to “Ruler of My Heart” and “Two Winters Long.” Falls and members of Galactic re-emerged to help the Toussaint Band take on the two numbers probably most recognizable to the under-55 set: “Yes We Can Can” (popularized by the Pointer Sisters) and “Southern Nights” (a hit for Glen Campbell).
Dr. John ended his set and the show with the two numbers that are always fan favorites at any of his gigs, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night,” both from the 1973 album In the Right Place, which Toussaint produced and arranged. Other than these, his too-quick 45-minute set deviated almost entirely from one of his typical shows to incorporate Toussaint tunes like “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Get Out My Life, Woman” (both hits for Lee Dorsey). Magnanimous as he was in going outside his own catalog, though, the inevitable highlight was still “Such a Night,” in which Dr. John’s wild piano fills managed to sound like a combination of ragtime and the symphony, even before he got around to quoting Gershwin at the climax.
What was missing was much of a sense of context for Toussaint newbies, beyond a between-sets slideshow. Dr. John promised to talk about Toussaint but didn’t really, and you wished an Elvis Costello or Joe Henry (who produced Toussaint’s final album, the posthumously released American Tune) would show up just as a guest lecturer, if not performer. But you could argue that “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” did all the necessary talking — even if that parenthetical “from now on” seems like a promise unfulfilled in this largely funkless age.
The complete setlist:
Heart of Steel
Hey Na Na
ALLEN TOUSSAINT BAND
Sweet Touch of Love
Night People (with Cyril Neville)
Fortune Teller (Neville)
Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On) (Neville)
Freedom for the Stallion (Neville)
Two Winters Long (with Irma Thomas)
Ruler of My Heart (Thomas)
Old Records (Thomas)
Yes We Can Can (with Galactic)
Southern Nights (Galactic)
DR. JOHN & THE NITE TRIPPERS
Get Out My Life, Woman
Working in the Coal Mine
Go Tell the People
Right Place, Wrong Time
Such a Night