LIVE: Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Allen Toussaint @ MASS MoCA, 10/23/14

Review by Greg Haymes

They’re calling it the Oh Yeah! Tour, and – oh yeah! – it was one helluva big party direct from the Big Easy. Two of New Orleans’ most revered musical treasures – the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint – teaming up for a rompin’ concert that covered a century or so of Crescent City classics.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band is still deeply rooted in the traditional jazz of New Orleans. That’s their mission statement. But in recent years, the eight-piece touring band has mixed in more contemporary styles, thanks to bassist-creative director Ben Jaffe, trumpeter-vocalist Mark Braud and saxophonist-vocalist Clint Maedgen.

In fact, their latest album, “That’s It!,” was co-produced by Jaffe and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Last month in concert at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center in North Adams, they leaned more forward than backward, kicking off the evening with a batch of tunes highlighted by the instrumental “Sugar Plum” (a kind of second cousin to “Watermelon Man”) and the rousing gospel rave-up “Dear Lord (Give me the Strength),” with tuba player and non-stop dancin’ machine Ronell Johnson grabbing the microphone to testify in full-on preacher mode.

Then walking onstage in a loud, multi-colored patchwork suitcoat (just a shade shy of a bona fide clown suit), master singer-songwriter-pianist-arranger-producer Toussaint joined the band at the grand piano, launched into “A Certain Girl,” and the small open area in front of the stage was immediately transformed into a jam-packed dance floor. Toussaint’s musical career goes back even further than PHJB, who formed in 1963, and he could only hit so many of his touchstones in the concert, but he made wise selections – “Workin’ in the Coal Mine,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman” (his most recorded song) and “Mr. Mardi Gras,” during which he tossed beads, masks and more out to the clamoring crowd.

After PHJB left the stage, Toussaint’s 25-minute solo set featured more of his gems, notably “Yes We Can Can” (a hit for the Pointer Sisters) and the sublime “Brickyard Blues,” proving that he may be the only man on the planet who can conjure up such a graceful, almost effortless fusion of funk and elegance. And he dazzled at the piano with an instrumental medley that sliced and diced snippets of Chopin and Rachmaninoff with riffs from New Orleans keyboard kings Professor Longhair and James Booker.

Appropriately enough, the band returned during Toussaint’s tribute tune, “Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” and they took it out with “Fortune Teller,” Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin'” and a two-part, tour de force rendition of the NOLA nugget “Saint James Infirmary” – first slow (sung by Braud) and then uptempo (sung by Maedgen).

Following a drum-focused jam led by Joe Lastie, Jr. and percussionist Reginald Toussaint, PHJB and Toussaint wrapped up the night in a sweet, warm embrace with the closing encore of “Southern Nights,” and only two words could sum up the night – Oh Yeah!

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