There was a lot of guitar in my life last week. Between Shon Troth’s expert slide work at Rock the Garden, to Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood trading licks at Xcel, and Johnny Swardson at the Stone Arch Festival, I’m all set. But the musical highlight of the week came from an old piano man: Allen Toussaint.
This past spring, I saw Toussaint at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, and although that show was incredible—he had a big band behind him and was playing in front of thousands in his hometown—there was something special about seeing him for free in St. Paul’s Mears Park for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. He went on just after a summer storm, and in between songs it was quiet enough to hear the creek running through the park’s English-style landscaping. Toussaint had a smaller band than the one he had in NOLA, of course, just a five-piece this time, but he still played all the hits: “Here Come the Girls” and “Working in the Coal Mine.” And he covered Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” and a snippet of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” He’s a pro, and he was dutifully kicking them out, but at the end of the set—during a set piece that I’ve since learned is a bit of well worn old school jazzmanship—Toussaint achieved a little Friday night transcendence.
He started by brushing the keys, just barely suggesting a melody submerged beneath a story about him as a child. His daddy used to take him and his brother out to the countryside to see “all the old folk." “The houses got further and further apart out there,” he said. “And there were cows and pigs and we loved it, it was beautiful.” Slow and easy, still just touching that melody, he continued, talking about his country relatives’ funny names and funny language, and how he learned why they move the outhouse from time to time, and then he would slow down and say, “and it was wonderful, we really loved it.” And you started to notice that this was almost a spoken word piece, just barely accompanied by the piano, with a rhythm and a refrain. He kept telling his story. “And we would set out on the porch,” he said, “and there was a hierarchy to the porch. You see, this was before the children had inherited the world, and so my brother and I would sit on the bottom step.” He described the entire porch, where everybody sat, what everybody was doing. “And we loved it, it was so nice.” And then he talked about how he realized either then or later that everything he ever wanted or needed was on that porch: “medicine, law, family, food,” he said. “And I’m so thankful.” And then he told us there was one thing that porch gave him that he was especially grateful for: “this song.”
And then he started singing:
have you ever felt a southern night?
Free as a breeze
not to mention the trees
Whistling tunes that you know and love so.
just as good even when closed your eyes.
I apologize to anyone who can truly say
That he has found a better way...