The Manship Theatre opened its 10th season Friday with a very special guest. Allen Toussaint, following in the footsteps of his fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee from New Orleans, Dr. John, joined the list of great acts who’ve played the Manship stage.
“This is such a charming theater,” Toussaint said. “I love this place.”
Toussaint and his three-man band, featuring master bassist and former Baton Rouge resident Roland Guerin, opened with “Party Going On.” The song, in its bouncing rhythm and spirit and variety, encapsulated much of what Toussaint’s music and New Orleans music are all about — especially the Latin tinge, but also country flavor and classical and Baroque styles.
Even if Toussaint, whose honors include induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Arts award, had never stepped on a stage, his place in music would be secure. Before his late-blooming career as a performer, he’d already written and/or produced and arranged for, to name a few, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, The Pointer Sisters, The Band, Glen Campbell and Bonnie Raitt.
But then came a new chapter: entertainer. Moving to New York City after Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint, then in his 60s, assumed the frontman role he’d never fully exploited before.
At the Manship Theatre, Toussaint led his versatile band in an entertaining survey of his vast catalog.
Singing his classics and newer songs, Toussaint enhanced the performances with stories, for instance, about Ernie K-Doe, the comically self-aggrandizing New Orleans singer whose recording of the Toussaint-penned “Mother-In-Law” became a No. 1 hit in 1961, and Benny Spellman, who sang the bass voice for “Mother-In-Law” and sang lead for “Lipstick Traces.”
Turning to “Happiness,” another of his hits, Toussaint said, “I wrote this a long time ago for myself and it sold four records.” Later, he explained, The Pointer Sisters recorded “Happiness” and “took it to the bank.”
A much newer song, the joyful “It’s a New Orleans Thing,” saw Toussaint singing and playing homage to the hometown he so dearly loves. It featured Toussaint’s on-the-money vocal and keyboard impressions of Professor Longhair plus references to homegrown talents Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Dr. John.
The Manship audience also heard the world premiere of a new composition, “Old School.” As the title suggests, it’s a happy, nostalgic piece that sounds as if he came from another time.
Toussaint demonstrated his formidable piano chops in a late-show tour de force featuring snippets of melodies from Hank Williams Sr. (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”), The Browns (“The Three Bells”), from classical music maestros and, going back to New Orleans, Professor Longhair (“Big Chief”).
During the encore, Toussaint asked if there were any piano players in the house. LSU student Michael McDowell accepted the star’s invitation to go on stage. A composition major, McDowell did very well, indeed, as he improvised alongside the New Orleans music maestro on the shared piano bench.