The memorial tribute to Allen Toussaint held Friday morning at the Orpheum Theater rose admirably to the challenge of honoring a nearly six-decade musical career of almost dizzying breadth and influence.
With Davell Crawford at the piano, Cyril Neville began the 2 1/2 hours of music and remarks with a soft and sweet rendition of “Let’s Live,” a souvenir of Toussaint’s early years as in-house writing and producing talent for the seminal Minit and Instant rhythm and blues labels.
There were spiritual tributes, such as John Boutte’s somber “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and Irma Thomas’ “Walk Around Heaven All Day,” which the soul singer dedicated to Toussaint’s family. And there were upbeat ones, such as the rollicking “Life” tickled out of the Steinway onstage by Dr. John and a joyous, all-hands-on-deck finale of “I’ll Fly Away.”
The lyrics to “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” and “What Is Success,” taut, intense soul from Toussaint’s 1970s solo recordings, were printed in the program.
Crawford returned to the piano close to the middle of the roster, alone, to play “Southern Nights” — the Toussaint composition that scored Glen Campbell a No. 1 pop hit in 1977.
Campbell’s version of “Southern Nights” had been a whomping country stomp. Toussaint’s recording was something else entirely.
Over delicately chiming keys, Toussaint’s vocals are run through a Leslie speaker for an otherworldly effect, making his voice feel beamed in from a dream, from the past. That was the intent, it seemed.
The song was an anchor of his solo set in recent years, a signature song, and he would draw it out with a soliloquy. He cast a slow storyteller’s spell, telling a tale of visiting relatives in rural Louisiana who lived among “houses that looked so old they must have been built old,” sitting on a porch in the darkness as a child, surrounded by family.
No matter how many times he performed it, each time he seemed to sink into that memory wholly, with a lingering smile.
Singer-songwriter Boz Scaggs was at the Orpheum on Friday to perform Toussaint’s “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” alongside pianist Jon Cleary and to make some remarks about his friend. He said he had left the notes for those remarks at his hotel, so he spoke from the heart Friday morning, and what he came up with was a memory of “Southern Nights.”
When Toussaint sang it and told that story, Scaggs thought, the great musician was talking about “a night of dark wonder, for a child.”
The memory of love and family and a small thrill of magic in a Louisiana night was something Toussaint held dearly in his heart. He was a famously elegant man, gracious to the point of reserve. But through the song, he showed that part of his heart to his wide audience of fans and friends.
“He was never so secure, so safe and happy in his life. He knew that on that porch, everything that was important existed, the completeness of the world,” Scaggs said. “And I think he carried that world with him to his very last day.”