Another ACL TV Show Experience

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When it rains it pours. And in a good way.

Last Tuesday, it was ACL TV show time again. I was fortunate enough (and yes, willing enough to wait in line for 45 minutes in the 100 degree heat) to land tickets to the ACL TV taping for Allen Toussaint. I invited my pal and collaborator Jessica Nelson, who by the way is a very talented Austin logo designer and graphic designer. She was a first-timer, and I got a kick out of her exclamation after the first song: “I feel like I’m in a dream!”

We got an excellent spot in the second or third rank, mosh pit, stage right, just behind a young woman who proved to be the most uninhibited dancer and Toussaint fan in the entire crowd. I’m certain she’ll show up in the broadcast.

Allen Toussaint

Now when people talk about a “music legend,” there’s usually a little bit of reserve implied. The words mean important geezer or he was a wrecking ball in his prime. Bob Dylan is a music legend, but my friends who saw him at the ACL Music Festival are not reluctant to diss the man, claiming his performance was unfocused and unpleasant to the ear.

Allen Toussaint is a music legend, but I mean that only in a complimentary way. I was a little concerned going in that the show was destined to be an oldies, “pat on the back” kind of affair, but such concerns were only the figments of an uninformed mind.

You see, Allen Toussaint is musicality incarnate.

I’m not writing this to detail the contributions of Toussaint, a New Orleans R&B institution and author of hits for artists as diverse as Glen Campbell, the Stones, himself, and yes, Devo. But the guy is totally relevant and a master showman. Genial, sharing the spotlight generously with his talented band, Toussaint gave to the Steinway and the mike at his ACL TV taping like they were his own flesh and blood. I was consistently impressed with the sweetness and tonal perfection of the band’s solos. Probably the only sour note of the evening was when he threw us a wry, remonstrative smile when some lunk kicked a plastic cup during the quiet piano-accompanied storytelling lead-in for “Southern Nights.”

The ACL TV Taping’s Brightest Moments

There are two moments that stand out for me. One was a gift from the audience to him, and the other of course was his gift to us.

During his instrumental rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” some of the audience seized on the beat and began snapping their fingers to it. Spontaneously, everyone joined in, until the soft tune was delicately accented by all our fingers in unison. Toussaint had a smile on his face as he finished the song, and he thanked us for the experience.

The other moment was a brilliant, tour de force piano solo delivered by Toussaint without any help from his band. I dread to call it a medley, because medleys are often maudlin, and this performance was the antithesis of maudlin. It soared from jazz to pop to classical to R&B, blending them all and making a persuasive wordless argument for a universal theory of musical genres. Sometimes he hinted at familiar strains, like a gentle musical nudge; other times the ear could pick out pieces of Gershwin or Paul Simon. More impressive, really, was that the performance conveyed emotions more than musical ideas – wonder, joy, sadness, and at the end, an expansive sense of adventure and possibility that I can only guess to have been a statement about Austin and the spirit of the south. A lesser musician would’ve tried to make that statement with a bit of Willie Nelson or a lick of Texas blues, but no, no, Allen Toussaint is far too skilled and subtle for that.

When we left, we heard one of the ACL TV staff talking to another, grinning broadly. He was saying, “That one was a highlight.”

Thank you, Mr. Toussaint.

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