The Keys to New Orleans March 3, 2009
By Glen Creason
Featured performer Allen Toussaint in the musically magnificent “The Keys to New Orleans” show was doing so well and playing so sweetly that I thought to myself that I could listen to this man all night. And I almost did. Toussaint got in the spirit of the Crescent City, settled in at the big Steinway used for all three great pianists and turned a forty-five minute set into an hour and forty minutes of expertise on the keyboards and the art of songwriting. Toussaint has more hit records than Cerritos has cars plus a piano technique that makes the man a genuine maestro on the 88’s. Many of the tunes heard on this night were hit records way back when Rock and Roll was a toddler including stuff like “Mother In Law, “ “Fortune Teller,” “Working in the Coal Mine” “Certain Girl” and the infectious “Java” that was played at my grammar school dances. He has never slowed or gone out of style, producing hit songs in every decade since. From “Yes We Can Can” to “Southern Nights” Allen Toussaint has blazed a path across American pop while supplying folks like Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Miller and even the Rolling Stones with hit songs. What the large crowd on hand was hip to also is that Toussaint is one incredible piano player in almost every style imaginable. There seems to be no limit to his dexterity and style nor does there seem to be a bottom to his deep well of musical wisdom. He told charming stories, he tossed off grand arpeggios as he spoke and was overall a wonderful host who was having so much fun it was hard for him to leave or for us to let go. Even amidst all the hits the very special moments came on a spectacular biographical ramble in which he beautifully moved through his piano influences leaving many a mouth agape in the hall. Yet, instead of finishing at a gallop he slowed to a canter in the finale “Southern Nights” with an enchanting prelude spoken about his childhood visits to the Louisiana countryside.
Two accomplished and extremely polished New Orleans music veterans, Jon Cleary and Henry Butler, opened the show. Cleary is exceptionally powerful in his piano excursions putting a capitol B in barrelhouse. In his short but very potent seven song set he gave the big crowd songs to remember as in “Young Boy Blues,” “Over in Gloryland,” “Don’t Let My Husband Catch You,” and “Farewell to Storyland.” He also made the masses sit up and move a little with two superb instrumentals, especially the last boogie-woogie that reached a fever pitch. Cleary was closely followed by the legendary Henry Butler who showed such speed and dexterity on his bluesy piano romps that it sometimes expanded musical boundaries. He kept it to just five numbers but they all glowed with some real heat. “He busted off juicy slices of New Orleans meat with “Orleans Inspiration,” “Something You Got” and went the distance with “Let It Roll” that saw the audience beg him to stay. Unlike Allen Toussaint’s long distance course, Butler’s run was more like a bracing six furlongs where he won going away.