Center for the Arts brings N’awlins to Grass Valley
“Night people start swingin’, lookin’ at each other, waitin’ for somethin’ to happen,” sang Allen Toussaint about his beloved city of New Orleans. In spite of the bone-chilling early cold snap and the mist rising from the wet grass caused by the previous day’s downpour, guests at the annual Center for the Arts concert benefiting the Bear Yuba Land Trust on Sunday night were definitely looking for some swingin’ to happen. And it did.
Opening with the finger-snapping “There’s a Party Goin’ On,” the brilliant Toussaint got things rolling right away, following up with his well-known, “Sneaking Sally through the Alley” (recorded by Ringo Starr) and “Get Out of My Life Woman,” covered by the Grateful Dead. Toussaint is an American treasure.
A producer, arranger, songwriter, conductor and performer, he doesn’t just play the piano, he caresses it, scolds it and bends it ever so gently to his will. Interpolated into rollicking blues rolls were sudden touches of baroque gold—trills, unremitting dissonances and constant changes of key and meter, all grounded by a boogie-woogie-style left hand.
Toussaint’s career began in his early twenties, and he quickly amassed a string of hits, putting his signature New Orleans sound on the map. His tune “Whipped Cream” became a hit for Herb Alpert, “Working in the Coalmine” was covered by The Judds, and “Yes We Can” became a hit for The Pointer Sisters.
He was honored with a Grammy nomination in 1977 for “Southern Nights,” the song of the year. His career, spanning 40 years, has seen him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Song Writers Hall of Fame and awarded the National Arts and Humanities medal by President Obama.
Toussaint finished with a medley of Mardi Gras tunes, “Throw Me Something Mister” and “Keep Them Big Floats Rolling Along,” as he tossed beads and other trinkets to audience members, who responded by jumping up, running to the stage and creating happy mayhem.
Following Toussaint, Dr. John and his five-piece backup band took the stage. The enthusiasm was palpable as the venerable big man sat down at the piano. Decked out with Mardi Gras beads and voodoo charms, the group opened with “Blues In the Night” and then hit its stride with a medley of “Old Cotton Fields Back Home” and “Goodnight Irene” in rockabilly style.
The trombone played second line all night, as the Doctor segued into such hits as “Right Place Wrong Time,” using his signature moans, groans and sighs to great effect.
Dr. John’s career began in the 1950s and took off in the 1960s when he was in demand as a session musician playing behind Sonny and Cher, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones, among others. He has earned Grammy Awards four times and received six additional nominations over the years.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Dr. John stepped forward with fundraising concerts and an album, “The City That Care Forgot,” which won him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. On Sept. 18, Dr. John was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Awards.
Simultaneously recalling the sadness of the blues and the ecstasy of celebration, Dr. John’s musical style, a gumbo of mystical funk, blues and Creole rock, is often referred to as a “swampy-gris-gris” style.
The practice of gris-gris (wearing an amulet around the neck) came to the U.S. with African slaves and was adopted by practitioners of voodoo.
In the Cajun communities of Louisiana, gris-gris is a symbol of black magic. What else would you call the spell Dr. John put on the audience on Sunday night?
Kudos to The Center for the Arts for bringing Dr. John and Allen Toussaint to Grass Valley. In spite of the cold, the mood was hot and the ambiance definitely southern. With the help of over 200 volunteers, the Center for the Arts celebrated New Orleans in Nevada County.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Lynn Wenzel lives in Grass Valley.
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