On Monday, the Grammys devoted a grand total of exactly six seconds of its bloated three-and-a-half-hour telecast to acknowledge the passing of Allen Toussaint, the brilliant New Orleans musical renaissance man who in countless overt and subtle ways profoundly influenced popular music for a half century.
On Wednesday night at the Dakota, Davell Crawford, more than a generation younger than Toussaint but also an heir to the great New Orleans piano tradition, compensated for the Grammy slight. His impressive, heartfelt Toussaint tribute celebrated the man’s character, talent, and seemingly fathomless enduring legacy.
But it was far from a wake, as Crawford and his sinewy three-piece band periodically cranked up the Crescent City’s trademark second line funk, including a wicked run through the Meters’ “Hey Pocky-Way” to open the second set. The Toussaint connection, one of many Crawford pointed out throughout the show, was that the Meters started out as the house band at Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studio.
Before we get into Monday's show, a little history and context.
Toussaint, 77, died in November after a performance in Spain. He was an accomplished pianist, directly influenced by Professor Longhair. He wrote a slew of songs, mostly for artists he was producing, that are now a substantial part of the New Orleans canon (“It’s Raining,” “Fortune Teller,” “Mother-in-Law”). He also helped fuel the careers of Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, and dozens more.
The Pointer Sisters had a hit with his “Yes We Can,” Robert Palmer with “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” and Frankie Miller and Three Dog Night with “Brickyard Blues.” Other artists who made pilgrimages to New Orleans to tap Toussaint’s talents as a producer, arranger, and/or songwriter include Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Boz Skaggs, Little Feat, Labelle, and the Band.
Crawford was something of a piano prodigy who hung out at Sea-Saint as a child. When Toussaint died, Crawford was among the musicians who played at his funeral and a subsequent New Orleans tribute. But he performed full-fledged tributes with his own band only at the Dakota, he announced, because of Toussaint’s close association with the club and the Twin Cities’ support for New Orleans music.
Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Dakota performances followed up a pair of sold-out dates in mid-January.
In any case, Crawford easily could have gotten by running through straightforward renditions of Toussaint’s many classics, and he would have been well received doing so. Instead, he opted for a more intimate, personal, and almost impressionistic performance to honor his friend and mentor, illuminating the deep connections in the historic New Orleans scene.
Sitting at the Dakota’s grand, Crawford kicked things off with a solo piano foray, including a jaunty version of “Something You Got,” a signature tune from Chris Kenner, another artist with whom Toussaint closely worked. Then the band weighed in for a fiercely rocking run through Earl King’s “Trick Bag,” which was also the title cut of a Toussaint-produced Meters album.
Guitarist Jamieson Ledonio laced lean, wiry electric lines through the tunes all night, sometimes evoking Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli in the juxtaposition of funk and whining solos. The taut rhythm section was anchored by drummer LeShawn Lee’s crisp precision and the juicy bass of Roland Guerin, the latter a longtime member of Toussaint’s bands.
Crawford’s lyrical, improvised “Trick Bag” coda led to a trio of Irma Thomas songs — “It’s Raining,” “Breakaway,” “Ruler of My Heart” — from the days Toussaint was helping launch her career in the early ’60s. “Yes We Can,” with awkward vocal assistance from a woman in the audience, and “Night People,” also covered by Robert Palmer, followed.
Then Crawford issued a reflective version of the ballad “With You in Mind,” which gave him a chance to show off his gospel influences, before he rounded off the first set with a snippet of “Jockomo,” also known as “Iko Iko,” the New Orleans standard written by his grandfather, Sugarboy Crawford.
“[Toussaint] was friends with my grandpa,” he said. “He was friends with everybody.”
During the second set, Crawford expanded on his connections to Toussaint, prompted by his aunt moving to a place near Toussaint’s studio.
“When I was about 11 years old Allen gave me a place to go,” he said. “I figured out they had a grand piano in the studio, and they didn’t tell me to leave. I was able to watch the sessions. I thank him for not telling me to not play his piano even when it was freshly tuned for a session.”
Second set highlights included another blistering funk workout on “On Your Way Down” (memorably covered by Little Feat”), a poignant “All These Things” (originally written for Art Neville), a romp through Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (Toussaint played piano on the original sessions), and finally an elegiac reading of “Southern Nights,” which Toussaint considered his signature song.
Ultimately, it was a night to salute with a friendly informality a gracious giant whose astounding body of work will endure as long as funky second lines.
Critic’s bias: Former New Orleans resident.
The crowd: Predominantly gray and savvy; far more cheers for a mention of idiosyncratic New Orleans pianist James Booker than Ray Charles.
Random notebook dump: Six seconds for Allen Toussaint while the Grammys frittered away hours on maudlin pop, an embarrassing tribute to the plodding Lionel Richie, an uninspired corporate speech, and vapid Pitbull fireworks.