Allen Toussaint’s languid, reverie-filled piano introduction to “Southern Nights,” a No. 1 hit he gave to Glen Campbell, is worth the price of admission to his new live set Songbook all by itself.
Campbell’s familiar version of the song, so full of bawdy down-home sensuality, is forgotten in the humid breezes of Toussaint’s singular atmospherics. He brings the song back to its beginnings, with a dreamscape memory of sitting as a group on his country relatives’ front-porch looking out into the inky black Louisiana evening — far from his hometown of New Orleans’ city lights. These trips to the Creole woods, as Toussaint recalls on stage in his cooing, genteel fashion, helped ground the family, to show them where they came from.
“It was wonderful, because I knew that everything important in the whole world was on this porch,” Toussaint says. “As the daylight would give into the night, there were no street lights, so the moon would really show off. I’d look at the trees, and the leaves that were facing the moon would have this silver light on them. And as the wind would blow, those lights would twinkle on and off.”
His keyboard echoes every element of this story, rushing forward with the breeze, then returning back into a humorous wink when Toussaint relays a series of tall tales shared there on the porch. He even comes to a sudden halt when the matriarch’s rocking chair stops for a moment.
It’s emblematic of the touchingly personal, almost confidential joy surrounding Songbook, a September 24, 2013 release from Rounder Records which combines a live solo album with a DVD. Included are 25 tracks recorded during two 2009 shows at Joe’s Pub, an intimate New York City club that became Toussaint’s homebase in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. An in-depth interview with Toussaint, conducted by producer Paul Siegel, is included on the DVD, as well.
Radio listeners will remember much of this music, even if they never knew of Toussaint’s association with it. There’s “It’s Raining,” a hit for Irma Thomas; “Brickyard Blues,” memorably covered by B.J. Thomas and Three Dog Night; a pair of Benny Spellman hits in “Lipstick Traces” and “Fortune Teller”; “Working in a Coalmine,” the Lee Dorsey smash; and, of course, “Mother-in-Law,” the Ernie-K Doe chart topper.
He also touches on solo tracks like “Sweet Touch of Love,” from 1971′s Toussaint, “Get Out My Life, Woman” from 1996′s Connected, and “Freedom for the Stallion” which found a home on 2006′s River in Reverse collaboration with Elvis Costello — along with ageless favorites like “St. James Infirmary,” which most recently appeared on Toussaint’s Grammy-winning 2010 release The Bright Mississippi.
Every moment is perfectly attenuated, deeply resonate, like an old story told a new way. Much of Songbook unfolds in this manner, as Toussaint not only reclaims a briefcase of songs that he helped create as a songwriting/producer svengali but then reshapes them into something entirely different. We hear them as if they’d never been heard before.