Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint had crossed paths before.
More than two decades ago, the British rocker called on the renowned producer, pianist and songwriter to produce a song for him. And a few years later, Costello leaned on the New Orleans native for another project.
Yet they didn’t form a lasting friendship, and had long been out of touch when they just happened to be on the same bill at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest in May 2005.
It was a happy, brief, reunion. But it would take a disaster of epic proportions to bring the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers together again as collaborators, and also as friends.
“It’s just great,” Toussaint says of working with Costello, with whom he will tour this summer. “There’s something very magical about it, the kind of magic you’d like to have every time you play in life.”
A requiem on a tragedyThat magic has been captured in a new album, “The River in Reverse.” Comprised of new songs and also of reworked tunes from Toussaint’s catalog, the album is a requiem on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
Toussaint was one of the musicians personally affected by Katrina — his New Orleans home was badly damaged and he had to evacuate to New York, where he is still living.
When Katrina struck, Costello worried about his old friend. In concert, his thoughts gravitated toward Toussaint and he reached into the musician’s songbook for “Freedom for the Stallion,” which expresses the pain of a suffering people and contains lines like “Lord, have mercy, what are you gonna do about the people who are praying to you?”
“It seemed like a good song to sing in those circumstances,” Costello says of Toussaint’s old gem, which is also on the new album.
At the same time, Toussaint was being called to perform at New York City-area benefits for Katrina victims. Though weary from his own ordeal, he was eager to be on a stage again.
“I wanted to do as much as I could as soon as I could — the benefits, I would have done everything they asked,” says Toussaint, as he and Costello sit in a downtown cafe before another performance together.
“I couldn’t help but be eager to be involved in everything, where I could warrant my own existence, you might say.”
It was at one of those benefits that Toussaint and Costello performed together for the first time in years. After that, there was another benefit — and another joint performance. And another.
Though the benefits dwindled, the pair’s interest in performing together didn’t. Eventually, Costello — who’s become almost as famous for his unlikely collaborations with other acts as for his own hits — began to look at Toussaint as a future recording partner.
“Initially, I didn’t know what Allen’s reaction would be about making a record,” Costello says. “But then he was open to it and we got to talking and the next thing you know, we were writing songs.”
The collaboration process got off to a slow start, though.
“When we first started to write, we were almost too polite to one another — the piano seemed to be made out of electricity, neither of us would touch it for the first day,” remarked Costello.
But when Costello heard Toussaint playing a minor key version of the Professor Longhair classic “Tipitina,” it inspired them to write the song “Ascension Day,” which starts with the eerie depiction of a deserted New Orleans: “Not a soul was stirring, not a bird was singing...”
‘It felt like we were part of a very important mission’It’s a scene that was replayed when the pair traveled to New Orleans in the fall to finish the record, which was started in Los Angeles. At first, they didn’t even know if there was an undamaged studio left in the city, but they soon found themselves at the celebrated Piety Street Recording studio in the virtually deserted Ninth Ward.
Their surroundings definitely had an impact on the tone of the record, both men say.
“Spiritually, we knew where we were,” says Toussaint, in his deep, regal voice. “It felt like we were part of a very important mission. It was about making the music itself, but these underlying subjects were lurking around.”
“There’s also the experience of being in a city which you’re used to seeing full of people and activity and life,” Costello pipes in, describing how the typically busy Canal Street strip looked like a ghost town.
“I got out of the car, and it’s like, it’s completely silent, and there was nobody around.”
Though Costello’s ties to New Orleans are more musical than personal, he’s the one who gets most visibly riled over what’s become of the city. A vocal critic of the Bush administration, his anger over Katrina can be heard not only in his voice, but in the lyrics. While there’s no “Impeach the President” song a la Neil Young, Costello makes it clear that songs like the title track are political — and more.
“What the song says, I hope, is more than just finger-pointing. It is, ‘Wake me up from this. I want to wake up from this.”’
Toussaint still hasn’t awakened from his bad dream. While his house is being rebuilt, he has only been in his beloved New Orleans a few times since the hurricane hit. Though staying in New York has been fun — “I love New York like everybody else,” he says — he still feels homesick, a bit out of sorts, and is longing to go home again.
“I am a plant in the garden of New Orleans,” Toussaint says proudly.