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Allen Toussaint brings decades of grooves, hits to Austin

Mark Vane
Allen Toussaint says he’ll play some of the jazzy standards from 2009’s ‘The Bright Mississippi’ as well as some of the songs with a New Orleans groove that he’s written and produced, at his two Austin shows.

Still performing after 50 years and continuing to hear his creations covered by a new generation of artists, New Orleans’ legendary songwriter, producer and pianist Allen Toussaint is happy.

“I love what I am doing,” he said in a recent phone interview, “and I always feel very alive.”

Toussaint, who turns 75 in January, plays two evening shows on Thursday at Stateside at the Paramount Theatre. Although the show is being touted as part of the Paramount’s jazz series, Toussaint said he expects to perform not only songs from his 2009 “The Bright Mississippi,” a jazzy album of standards, but also some of the iconic songs with a New Orleans groove he wrote and produced over the decades.

Throughout the 1960s Toussaint hand his hands on numerous R&B and rock ‘n’ roll classics that were recorded by a group of New Orleans musicians, each built upon the musical traditions of the city. These hits included Ernie K-Doe performing “Mother-in-Law” (which hit No. 1 on both Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts), Irma Thomas singing “It’s Raining,” Lee Dorsey doing “Working in a Coal Mine,” and Benny Spellman crooning “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette).”

In the 1970s, Toussaint produced the huge hit “Lady Marmalade” for Labelle, arranged horn parts for the Band, played on Paul McCartney’s “Venus and Mars” LP, worked extensively with New Orleans funk pioneers the Meters, and restarted his solo career after more than a decade off.

A 1992 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Toussaint’s songs have been recorded by dozens, including artists ranging from the Rolling Stones and the Who (who both recorded “Fortune Teller”), Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”, a No. 1 hit), the Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can”), and Devo (“Working In a Coal Mine”).

Even Austin’s own Robert Plant is a big Toussaint fan. Plant and Allison Krauss recorded “Fortune Teller” on their 2007 “Raising Sand” LP. And Plant gushed when he told the crowd at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz Fest that he had finally met Toussaint.

Of course, Hurricane Katrina also brought the spotlight back to the music of New Orleans. Toussaint said that the storms that came with Katrina had a silver lining.

“Katrina has brought more blessings that curses,“ Toussaint said. “It brought more awareness to New Orleans musicians.” Between local players being spread across the country, and the large number of tribute shows that followed, more people were exposed to the city’s music.

After the storm, Toussaint again reached a new audience. In 2006, he and Elvis Costello released the Grammy-nominated “River in Reverse” LP, an album that included Toussaint classics and new collaborations that addressed the post-Katrina turmoil.

Toussaint and Costello also appeared in early episodes of the HBO program “Treme,” which highlights the musical traditions of New Orleans. The show has been “wonderful” for the city, Toussaint said.

Even today, the next generation of New Orleans musicians looks to Toussaint. Trombone Shorty included a Toussaint song on his 2010 breakthrough LP “Backatown.” And Sam Williams, leader of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, serves in Toussaint’s horn section. Just as Toussaint carried the New Orleans music traditions from those before him, he sees a bright future for the music he created and championed.

“The links in the chain of New Orleans (music) are very well intact,” Toussaint said. “The generations are looking good as far as the follow-through from one to the next.”

Allen Toussaint