With his dark suit and regal bearing, Allen Toussaint was an oasis of elegance at the foot of a quickly rising hill of shorts and T-shirts during his two-hour performance at the North Carolina Museum of Art two weeks ago. Impressively, he maintained that elegance when his microphone malfunctioned the first time he tried to speak to that crowd of casual wear and picnic baskets.
That glitch was the only one I witnessed from my post atop the stone wall at the far back of the clearing. Some people like to get as close as they can to legends; I, whether out of shyness or unworthiness, almost always choose to keep a respectful distance.
And, yes, Allen Toussaint deserves to be referred to as a legend. "They call him the Cole Porter of New Orleans for his songwriting genius," writes Billy Vera in the essay that accompanies The Complete Warner Recordings, a lovely assemblage of Toussaint's '70s work from the good people at Rhino Handmade. The songs that Toussaint and his backing trio rolled out, close to 20 in all, made clear that he's earned that high praise.
Just take a long soak in this impossibly wide-ranging list of artists who recorded the songs he performed on Saturday night: the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Claudia Lennear (a beauty long regarded as the inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar"), Three Dog Night, Glen Campbell, the Meters, Aaron Neville, Warren Zevon, Maria Muldaur, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Lee Dorsey, Levon Helm, the Pointer Sisters, Ernie K-Doe, Joe Stampley, Joy Lynn White.... I could go on. And had he done the song that I most wanted to hear, "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?," I could have added Lowell George and Boz Scaggs to the list.
Toussaint is the rare genuine quadruple-threat: songwriter/ producer/ arranger/ performer. He's arguably least known for that last one, which is hard to believe in light of how he held us in those long-fingered hands, his piano playing alternating between a caress and a tickle, his voice as warm and powdered-sugary as a beignet.
Those talents hadn't been on display in the Triangle since 1957, when Toussaint came through town on a tour with Shirley & Lee of "Let the Good Times Roll" fame. "I spent most of my life in the studio," he offered midway through the show. "But my fancy booking agent, Katrina, got me out of town for a while."
The meteorological booking circumstances were obviously dire, but I'm thrilled that Toussaint was able to make it back to our town and that I was able to worship him from afar.