Allen Toussaint was on Elvis Costello’s brain Thursday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — literally. Costello closed the Gentilly Stage wearing a purple Kangol-style cap decorated with a button that bore the likeness of a beaming Toussaint.
The Toussaint emblem prominently adorned Costello’s forehead for the entirety of the set, much of which was, as expected, a de facto tribute to his late friend and collaborator
It played out under threatening gray clouds that held back their rain; Costello dodged a meteorological bullet. Acts earlier in the day weren’t so fortunate.
A hard rain pummeled the Fair Grounds around lunchtime, sending attendees scurrying for the performance tents. The rainwater drained sufficiently so the festival could proceed without interruption. But those who stuck around, or came midafternoon after the rains had passed, dodged lingering puddles and muddy bogs, especially toward the front of the Acura Stage field.
It was unofficially Guitar Day at Acura. Following south Louisiana’s Sonny Landreth, Gary Clark Jr., of Austin, Texas, presided over a brooding, ominous set of power-blues.
He was followed by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Across the first 20 minutes of their set, Susan Tedeschi testified in a burnished voice reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s as her husband, guitarist Derek Trucks, turned out the sort of fleet, Southern blues and boogie with which he revitalized the latter-day Allman Brothers Band.
At the opposite end of the Fair Grounds, Costello charged onto the Gentilly Stage semi-incognito in wire-rim sunglasses instead of his trademark thick plastic frames. His usual fedora was replaced by the aforementioned cap; the purple hue may or may not have been a subtle salute to the recently departed Prince.
Costello was not subtle about his desire to pay tribute to Toussaint. He and his three Imposters barreled through two of their classics right off the bat: “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” and “Watching the Detectives,” as if they wanted to dispense with their own mandatory songs in order to get to Toussaint’s.
“How the devil are ya?” Costello said by way of introduction.
With drummer Pete Thomas pushing them along, Costello directed Steve Nieve between organ and grand piano as he handled the guitar duties himself. His clenched rasp maybe a little raspier than usual, he roughed up the guitar passages, playing with more gusto than finesse.
That changed 35 minutes into the proceeding, when he strapped on an acoustic guitar and took a moment to reflect. He recalled how, barely four months after Hurricane Katrina, with a curfew in place and military Humvees still patrolling the streets of New Orleans, he and Toussaint recorded much of their “The River in Reverse” album in Bywater.
“Allen looked around,” Costello said, “and he had such a gracious attitude about it. It made me think about everything you all had lost.”
Duly inspired, Costello wrote new lyrics for Toussaint’s minor-key reinvention of the Professor Longhair classic “Tipitina.” They titled the result “Ascension Day.”
Toussaint wouldn’t say he didn’t like something in the studio. As Costello recalled, “He would say, ‘Well ... what do YOU think of that?’ ” He would leave it to the other party to reconsider the error of his ways.
Costello performed “Ascension Day” during a solo show at the Civic Theater in March 2015, with Toussaint in the house — only eight months before Toussaint died of a heart attack while on tour in Spain. Costello “took the precaution of taking out all the difficult chords. I was waiting for him to say, ‘Well ... what did YOU think of that?’ ”
Instead, “he said, ‘Most interesting.’ I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ ”
With that, Costello finger-picked his way through a hushed “Ascension Day” at Jazz Fest.
He would not stay hushed for long. He and the band took care of a bit more Imposters business via fully amped versions of “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” and “Everyday I Write the Book.”
For the rest of the show, it was Toussaint time.
Following the 2006 release of “The River in Reverse,” Toussaint and Costello toured the world together, two especially dapper songwriters demonstrating that their joint project was a genuine collaboration and not simply a gimmick.
They brought along a New Orleans horn section dubbed the Crescent City Horns. Those horns reunited with Costello onstage at Jazz Fest on Thursday: trumpeter Joe Fox and saxophonist Amadee Castenell, who spent years backing Toussaint as members of the funk band Chocolate Milk; saxophonist Brian “Breeze” Cayolle, a longtime member of Toussaint’s latter-day band; and trombonist “Big” Sam Williams, who sat in with Pearl Jam during Jazz Fest’s first weekend.
The Crescent City Horns kicked the set up a notch, or three, starting with “The River in Reverse” title track. They pumped up that album’s “Wonder Woman” and “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” from Costello’s 1989 album “Spike,” to which Toussaint contributed.
Organist Bob Andrews joined in for the classic New Orleans rhythm and blues ballad “I Have Cried My Last Tear,” which sounded right at home in Costello and company’s hands.
“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” a vintage Toussaint tune resurrected for “The River in Reverse,” swung.
With ominous clouds and the clock closing in, at least a couple of songs were cut. The setlists on the stage indicated Costello planned to do his classic ballad “Alison,” along with “I Can’t Stand Up” and/or “High Fidelity.”
Instead, they plunged directly into a celebratory “Pump It Up,” finishing right on time and on a high note. Toussaint would have approved.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.