Allen Toussaint

David Bazemore

Allen Toussaint

The Keys to New Orleans, featuring Jon Cleary, Henry Butler, and Allen Toussaint

At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Wednesday, March 4.

New Orleans piano is one of the most mesmerizing musical forms. It channels the earnestness and heartfelt prosaic subjects of deep country and blues, the formal innovation and meticulousness of Baroque, and the droning, psychedelic approach to time of the Indian rÄga. Three of the world’s foremost practitioners of this sprawling, underground idiom visited Campbell Hall last week for a three-part observation on the world as it is today-according to N’Awlins.

English sensation Jon Cleary went first. This guy would make the ideal wedding singer. He’s as honest as John Hiatt and as soulful as Joe Cocker, and the whole time he’s playing circles around you. Cleary found the spirit of presiding deity Professor Longhair as he sang that he was “feelin’ run-down, funky, and mean.” From there he launched into a sequence based, he said, on his childhood in Havana in the 1940s. “Siempre Mi Coraz³n” was bold, sweeping, highly romantic, full of tremolo-and fun as hell.

Henry Butler
Click to enlarge photo

David Bazemore

Henry Butler

Next up was Big Chief Stripedsuit, Henry Butler. Butler loves the attention and played unmercifully with the crowd, starting out with a mad gambit that involved pretending not knowing how to play, and concluded in an edgy sequence about his blindness. AIG, watch out-Henry Butler has got your dumb number. Butler’s playing was fantastic, bawdy, and ruthless-everything you would expect from a master of the cutting session. Each tune was sparked with some kind of keyboard phenomenon, and every lyric was turned out until it broke. “Ole Man River” never had it so good.

As if all this New Orleans majesty were not enough, after an interval out came Allen Toussaint, in fine voice and full of fire. Toussaint’s voice and phrasing make sense out of his sometimes arch and impenetrable lyrics, and his piano playing took second place to none on this night of keyboard stars. Highlights included his original composition turned election staple “Yes We Can,” which he rendered in a percussive Latin style that left everyone dazzled. Toussaint seems energized by what has happened to the country and his music since the election, and freely admits that, despite his age and experience, performing is still new to him. The soul on this occasion was real, and the feeling was mutual.

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