During the second week of last December, Costello hunkered down at Piety Street Studios in Bywater to lay down a collaboration album with one of New Orleans' greatest musical treasures: producer, songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint. A longtime admirer of Toussaint, Costello had worked with him before, briefly -- Toussaint produced Costello's 1983 cover of Yoko Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice," and contributed the piano lines to the New Orleans-recorded track "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" on Costello's 1989 album, Spike.
In the first weeks after Katrina, Costello found himself in New York City, where Toussaint, whose New Orleans home was inundated with 5 feet of water, had evacuated to safety. The two renewed their acquaintance onstage at several benefit concerts that month, and the idea for the collaboration quickly followed.
Legendary New Wave producer Joe Henry -- who produced the upcoming release, The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast), the album that Toussaint and Costello produced at Piety Street -- had recently worked with Toussaint on the compilation album I Believe to My Soul (Rhino/WEA), which was recorded in early 2005 and reconceived as a benefit album after the storm. Costello asked Henry to get in touch with Toussaint to see how he had fared. The idea of working with Toussaint more extensively had been on Costello's mind for a while, and now circumstance, and weather, had literally blown the opportunity their way.
"The thing was Elvis' brainchild right away," says Toussaint. "We began to develop songs and ideas, and we began to call in the band." The band included longtime Costello collaborators such as pianist Steve Nieve as well as a New Orleans horn section that features trombonist Sam Williams of Big Sam's Funky Nation, assembled by Toussaint. "They all jumped to, very glad to be there," Toussaint continues. "That was Elvis' heart speaking. He said, 'If horns there be, of course they'll be New Orleans horns.'" That choice ultimately became the force that ties The River in Reverse together.
Between the idea's genesis at the end of September and the musicians' first steps over Piety Street's threshold in early December, the project was informed by fresh news daily, both creatively and logistically. "Between making the decision to work together and gathering our thoughts, there was tremendous progress in the possibility of entering the city," Costello explains. "When we'd first started talking about making the record, we had to plan for (the possibility of recording in) Hollywood -- there was no assurance we could even enter the city. When it became apparent that Piety was opening, and hotels were opening that could accommodate people other than insurance adjusters and emergency workers ... over the weeks we were writing, each week brought very new, encouraging information."
Elvis Costello's experiments with American roots music have popped up here and there in his career, most notably in 2004's album, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway), which he recorded at Oxford, Mississippi's Sweet Tea Studios. The album was a loose story cycle that explored the biblical and mythological aspects of the South and of country-western and blues. Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris both appear on the album, as does New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The album also included the hard-driving "From Monkey to Man," an organ-heavy rave-up done as a half-answer song, half-homage to another New Orleans impresario, Dave Bartholomew, inspired by his classic "The Monkey Speaks His Mind." The song kicks off with the line, "A long time ago our point of view / was broadcast by Mr. Bartholomew."
On Sept. 20, 2005, Costello shared the stage with Bartholomew and Toussaint at the monster Katrina fundraiser held at Madison Square Garden, "From The Big Apple To The Big Easy." Four days later, according to press releases, he wrote the title track for The River in Reverse. So although the storm may have provided the opportunity, Costello's interest in New Orleans, and in Toussaint in particular, had been standing already.
The finished album itself is beautiful. Only one song, "River in Reverse," comes solely from Costello's pen. It was written early on in the weeks after the levees broke, on Sept. 24, after Costello had made the rounds of a few Katrina benefit concerts. The mournful lyrics -- "Wake me up, wake me up with a slap or a kiss / There must be something better than this because I don't see how it can get much worse / What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?"-- are a dead-on expression of the confusion that characterized those early postdiluvian days. It was a time when hundreds of thousands of evacuees sleepwalked through their days wondering why they couldn't wake up from this strange new nightmare. The steady, slow beat, underscored by muffled horns, advances the song as relentlessly as floodwaters.
Costello has said that the album follows the template of old songbook records, which were common projects when it was rare for performers to write their own songs. But what it really sounds like is a conversation -- a balanced dialogue between two luminaries with a lot of admiration and respect for what's in the other's formidable bag of tricks.
Mark Bingham, the Grammy-winning head of Piety Street Studios, didn't engineer the album, but had plenty of opportunity to observe the two working together. "The thing about Elvis Costello is that he wakes up and starts listening to music, writing music, thinking about music; it's a great thing to be around that energy," says Bingham. He's cheered to see Toussaint, whose normal presence as a writer, producer and arranger keeps him behind the scenes, getting this kind of well-deserved recognition. It's not necessarily a renaissance for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame songwriter's career, but it's a chance for Toussaint, the quintessential musician's musician, to step more decisively into the spotlight.
"All these people discovering Allen now, this way -- it's great for him," says Bingham. "A lot of people who got into music in the past 20 years may miss a lot of what Allen did. Both Elvis and Joe [Henry] really ended up learning a lot from him, and they were happy to have that experience, to work with someone who had done such amazing stuff." Bingham points out that Costello and Toussaint, for their versatility and curiosity about the whole spectrum of possibilities in music, make a great pair. Costello has experimented far outside of rock 'n' roll's defining borders, arranging some of his songs for a 52-piece orchestra for February's My Flame Burns Blue (Universal), an album that also included a variation on a classic Charles Mingus track as well as a new, original classical composition, "Il Sogno."
"Elvis has always been really willing to experiment outside his persona as much as Allen Toussaint," Bingham points out, citing his work with avant-garde jazz percussionist Kip Hanrahan in the mid-1990s.
Costello believes that kind of risk-taking creates the potential for work whose resonance and relevance can be reapplied over time. "It's a curious thing that songs that were written a few years ago have that strength and power," says Costello. He cites a couple of his choices, "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" and the soaring "Freedom for the Stallion," both of which contain Civil Rights-era calls for accountability that adapt easily to a new life in the climate of betrayal surrounding the post-Katrina landscape.
The more you look at the seven tracks chosen from the more cobwebbed corners of Toussaint's catalog, the more you can see the rapport between the two artists. If Costello was famous for his sneer, he's also a virtuoso of heartbreak, and the songs he's picked not only dovetail the two sentiments perfectly -- they also almost seem obviously, almost presciently written to address the world after the storm. It's a great exercise in exploring the vitality of songs, the way they're malleable and reveal new meanings when placed in different contexts or, as is so much the case here, become the nexus of a new conversation between different artists.
"The way I was thinking when I sang them, there was the idea that we must remain vigilant and ask that promises that have been made be kept," Costello says. "Songs have a habit of finding their moment, and Allen has written so many songs like that.
"I remember talking to Allen at that session," adds Costello, "and asking him about some of the songs, and him seeming quite surprised about some of [the choices]." Toussaint, for his part, seems pleased with Costello's approach to his catalog: "I was surprised, yes, but after talking to him, I wouldn't be surprised if Elvis knew even my D and E sides."
If the Toussaint songs are infused with fresh meaning, and what Costello wonders might be a "sense of witness," the collaborations are the real jewel that stands in testimony to both Toussaint and Costello's musicianship -- the real artisan examples of craft. Although Costello's fingerprints are heavy on the album, it is at its core a New Orleans soul record, with Toussaint's distinct style as its bedrock. Neither one's creative voice drowns out the other's on any track; they somehow combine to build a greater whole. As Costello's biting economy with words shines, as on "Broken Promise Land," or the most rock 'n' roll track on the album, "International Echo," Toussaint's soulful New Orleans horn arrangements make his presence known.
Two tracks in particular spotlight the back-and-forth between the pair. "Ascension Day" features new lyrics by Costello sung over a spooky, minor-key variation on Toussaint's "Tipitina," and though it's incredibly spare, the new perspective on a song so strongly associated with New Orleans makes it one of the best experiments on the album. "The Sharpest Thorn" begins with Costello's voice as the focal point. It could almost be one of his earlier, knife-to-the-heart cocktails of bitterness and tenderness combined until Toussaint's brass arrangement slowly builds at the end to evoke the feeling of a slow jazz funeral. Costello notes that, to him, the song is "maybe a relative of 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,'" the track off of 1989's Spike to which Toussaint contributed his piano part.
After their Jazz Fest appearance on Sunday, the two are kicking off an extensive tour this June. Both seem positive about New Orleans' recovery.
"It's very notable that the franchise stores were all shut in the French Quarter," Costello says. "The ones you see in every mall in downtown America weren't there. The locally owned businesses, particularly lots of music-industry businesses, clubs and of course Piety Street were open.
"We had a budget from Verve, and we were happy to be able to spend it in New Orleans," says Costello, adding that he hopes their project's presence sent out a signal of the city's viability. Toussaint, for his part, continues the long road of rebuilding and plans to move back home soon, after almost eight months based out of New York City.
"It's coming along," says Toussaint in his legendary smooth voice. "I've been in and out quite a bit. It's very slow, but our pace has always kind of cruised along. In my neighborhood there's a lot of trailers on lawns, and the spirit is there -- it's so overwhelming. [The storm] separated people physically, but time will take care of that. The spirit of New Orleans, that's forever."
Following their Sunday performance on the Acura Stage, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello will be interviewed together by Ben Sandmel at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. The River in Reverse will be available for purchase June 6.