Allen Toussaint, Bush Hall, London
Tuesday 06 June 2006
Ask any Allen Toussaint fan what they would like to hear the great man perform, and they'd doubtless come up with a wish-list that included copious representation from the Sixties R&B hits he wrote and produced for people such as Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Robert Parker and Aaron Neville, plus a sizeable tranche of songs from his own solo albums from the Seventies, topped off with a masterclass in New Orleans piano styles.
Unfortunately, it's a long time since everything Toussaint did was funky. Through the Eighties and Nineties, the multi-faceted regionalism of American R&B was ground into bland homogeneity by MTV and corporate radio chains, and New Orleans' distinctive musical cachet was sidelined as little more than a local rhythmic eccentricity. The city's stars were forced to make some humbling career choices - Aaron Neville, for instance, became Linda Ronstadt's crooning foil, while Toussaint himself became a cabaret museum piece, donning tuxedo and working the American supper-club circuit.
Perhaps the rococo, chandeliered surroundings of the Bush Hall persuaded him he was still in cabaret, but the lingering scars of that period are all over Toussaint's current act, for which he sits alone at the piano, vamping quietly as he chats away, and occasionally slipping in a rendition of whatever takes his fancy.
There's no denying the geniality of his manner, nor the virtuosity of his musicianship, but there's no real R&B bite to the show, and for some of its course, little of the essential bounce that gives his music its usual infectious character.
Most of the time, his renditions teeter on the cusp of entertaining and slightly irritating, in a showbizzy way: his version of Lazy Man is typical, with droll, self-deprecating asides delivered in an extempore manner that dates right back to Jelly Roll Morton.
Ultimately, the show left me feeling both over-stuffed and hungry, and I know I wasn't the only one. Toussaint may have done a few old classics like Wrong Number, Southern Nights and the show-closing Brickyard Blues, but not nearly enough to sate our appetites. Instead, with the introductions between songs growing longer and longer, it seemed like we were being asked to fill up on bread between courses, our gourmet expectations left sadly unfulfilled.
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