The Hollywood Bowl kicked off its Wednesday Night Jazz series for 2016 with a heavy dose of funk, as a lineup of New Orleans All-Stars took over the stage to pay tribute to Allen Toussaint, a true giant in the city’s musical history.
Toussaint penned and produced songs for dozens of great singers during his career, including Wednesday’s headliners Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennac) and Irma Thomas, and I’ve never seen anyone talk about him without cracking a warm smile. His tunes were the heart of R&B, by turns poignant, hilarious and inspirational. Rebennac introduced “Go Tell The People” as a “numba dat Allen ritted fo’ me, poisonably,” and sang with great intensity. Other Toussaint numbers, including “Working In A Coalmine,” were worked into his usual set, which climaxed with Dr. John’s biggest hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such A Night” (both Toussaint productions, as he pointed out).
Thomas and Cyril Neville fronted the Allen Toussaint Band for a few numbers each, with different takes on the classic material they were covering. Thomas sounded remarkably like the younger self that cut those records with Toussaint in the sixties and seventies, while Neville turned the uptempo hit “Fortune Teller” into a slow-burning blues howl, a dramatic and unexpected re-envisioning of a standard.
Galactic, one of the leading lights of the Crescent City’s modern funk scene, opened the night with a driving, stuttering groove from drummer Stanton Moore, thus setting a precedent for the night: no mediocre drumming allowed. This is certainly a house rule in New Orleans music generally, and was well-observed on this night in particular. Vocalist Erica Falls fronted the group through much of its set and emanated a soulful elegance.
When Falls and the members of Galactic joined the Toussaint Band for the set closers, “Yes We Can Can” and “Southern Nights,” the energy radiating from the stage felt unstoppable, a knife cutting through the bullshit that seemed to be floating in the air all last week. Hearing Obama’s anthem blaring through the Bowl, at practically the same moment Ted Cruz was urging Americans to “vote their conscience” against his party’s own nominee, was kind of delicious. And a delicious moment followed by some feel-good music is what a New Orleans kind of night is all about.