Early in his concert Saturday at the Folly Theater, Allen Toussaint promised to keep his patter to a minimum to focus on music. Fortunately for the audience of about 750, the loquacious legend reneged on his pledge. His pithy commentary and extended musings made his memorable performance even more riveting.
Few artists can tell more compelling stories than Toussaint. Along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Toussaint is one of the last surviving original architects of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues.
Yet because much of his most important work came in his capacity as a New Orleans-based songwriter and producer for artists including Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey, Toussaint isn’t a household name.
During his two-hour appearance — the first concert of the eighth season of the Cyprus Avenue Live series — Toussaint joked about the familial fallout caused by writing “Mother-in-Law,” the financial benefits of having songs covered by the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead, and the unexpected delight of seeing Tom Jones singing “Working in the Coal Mine” on television.
He spoke at length about the idyllic childhood evenings he spent in rural Louisiana as he delicately riffed on the gorgeous melody of “Southern Nights” at the piano. The hypnotic effect of his tranquil reminiscing transported the audience to a bucolic setting where “the quiet was very quiet and the dark was very dark.”
Toussaint’s work at the piano was just as eloquent. He’s a florid stylist equally adept at playing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Professor Longhair. His light but pretty voice was occasionally overwhelmed by a backing trio that included ace guitarist Renard Poché.
The concert’s sole fault was a set list that inevitably omitted many of Toussaint’s best and most important songs. The absence of classics including “Ruler of My Heart” was especially galling given Toussaint’s pointless cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Four of his biggest hits — “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Fortune Teller” and “Working in the Coal Mine” — were packed into a perfunctory medley.
A slinky version of “Yes We Can Can,” a regal interpretation of “Soul Sister” and a taut version of the agonizing lament “From a Whisper to a Scream” were far more satisfying.
On Jan. 26, Toussaint will learn if he wins one or both of the two Grammy Awards for which he’s nominated. At this stage of his career, the honors would come as an afterthought.
The real winners are the members of the audiences who continue to buy tickets to experience the work of a brilliant artist who retains much of his vitality.