Tag Archives: soul

Allen Toussaint: The Insider

Nashville, 2010

Allen Toussaint—the producer, arranger, writer and regal living embodiment of New Orleans soul—sits alone at a piano onstage in the dark, empty theater. He plays leisurely, but he is focused and listening carefully. It is sound check and something isn’t quite right. The monitor is popping. To test it, Toussaint plays loudly.

“There’s a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time,” he sings, the piano thundering in front of him. “What’s her name? Can’t tell you, no no.” Toussaint stops mid-song. He leans into the stage lights, his ringed hand above his eyes, peering out into the darkness for the soundman, who is adjusting levels on the board in the booth by the last row. He turns back to the keys, playing a soulful version of his “Southern Nights,” the 1977 No. 1 country hit for Glen Campbell. Then, a delicate minute of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” from Toussaint’s Grammy-nominated 2009 instrumental jazz album The Bright Mississippi. All this beauty, forty years of genius in just a few minutes, with hardly anyone here to hear it.

Toussaint stands and moves away from the piano as the soundman walks down the dark aisle to the stage to inspect the monitor. Toussaint’s road manager approaches. This might take a while. Toussaint smiles graciously, then walks through the wings and down the rickety stairs to the basement dressing room. He offers a bottle of water, motions towards a chair. He leans forward to greet the question, and then back as he takes it in. He sits quietly for a moment, thinking. Then, he answers.

I fell in love

“I grew up in a very humble neighborhood in New Orleans called Gert Town, full of shotgun houses and little single story doubles. Families lived side by side. The word ghetto was not thrown around then, so I’ll just say it was modest. After work in the evening, the old men in the neighborhood who had guitars would sit on their front porches and strum some old kind of bluesy song. There was lots of music everywhere, but I heard the radio first. I heard a lot of hillbilly music as a boy, which I love dearly. I grew up on that, and gutbucket blues. And my mother loved operas, so every Sunday, she played classical music on the radio, all day.

I started playing piano at age six. My parents bought one for my sister, and she didn’t take to it at all, but I loved it from as soon as I touched it. It wasn’t like picking up a trumpet for the first time. You touch a piano, you get the same thing out of it that the best pianists in the world get out of it. So I fell in love with this great big piece of furniture that was so kind to me at first touch. I fell in love! And I must say that early on I understood the structure of how it was set up. My sister was eight years old and she began taking piano lessons, and she was the first to show me that, ‘This E you are playing here is on the first line of the treble clef.’ And thus, theory started.”

Imitatin’ and emulatin’

“I was 15 when I first saw Professor Longhair. I was at a sock hop, a high school dance. This was before integration. I had been listening to him for years. I was already imitatin’ and emulatin’. When I saw him, he was playing a little Spinet piano. It looked like a toy. I had imagined him to be bigger than life. But I was totally awestruck. A couple years later, I saw him working as a stock room boy in One Stop Record Shop. I went to buy a record and they didn’t have it up front so they sent into the back to get it. And the guy who brought the box of records out into the store was Professor Longhair. It’s really weird to think that Professor Longhair was a stock room boy, but for some reason that didn’t matter to me. It was Professor Longhair! I left that store feeling very good.

I was around 19 when we actually hooked up and played together. The way he sounded on record is the way he talked, with that gravelly voice. And he took his music as seriously as the most serious classical musician. With the raggedy playing most of us do, a little mistake doesn’t matter much. But for him, to make a mistake was pretty bad. And it sounds like he is just wobblin’ all over the place, but he was always playing something in particular. He’s not just throwing it around to see where it sticks. He is sticking it wherever he wants it to stick.

He had a whole Professor Longhair way of life, in terms of philosophy and ideology and even vernacular, the way he talked. Music is about what’s going on inside you. All music can be written on paper. It really can. Everything can be written on paper—gravity forces, things out in the universe, even Professor Longhair’s music. But there is something that lives inside the people who are playing music. And the guys who let it live inside of them know it better than the people who are just trying to crowd the world with it.”

Just having a good time making music

“I love Fats Domino. He was inescapable for everyone in the world, and we were glad and proud he was from New Orleans. We all played the Fats Domino songs, because they were popular, and he had a formula that was easy to imitate. See, the doowop groups played the triplets—tink, tink, tink—up here. But in New Orleans, we played the triplets down here. That’s a big difference.

So we all played Fats Domino, but when Fats sat down and played, we all went, “Oh! That’s how it’s supposed to really go!” Dave Bartholomew called me in to play on a couple Fats Domino records and I played on three songs like Fats would have played. One of the highest compliments in my life was eight months later, after the record had been out for a while, Fats told me one day, ‘I don’t know whether that is you or me!’

There was no way for us to know the impact we were having. For one thing, most of us were just having a good time. I was 15, 16, 17 when me and Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, were playing in the studio. He was always playing guitar. And I was just having a good time. And a little later on, I got to be in charge. I wasn’t just a sideman. I was really calling the shots, but still just having a good time and making music, with no idea the impact it would have on the world.

When ‘Mother in Law’ became a hit, I didn’t pay any attention to it. We lived the same way every day. We were just doing what we were doing, and it was out there. And I would hear every now and then, ‘Oh, it’s doing really good.’ And I sort of knew it was out there, but me and Willie Harper and Calvin LeBlanc and all of us, we would all be in the same room the next day, drinking Coca Cola and having potato chips and doing some more songs, with Irma Thomas or someone else. Irma Thomas was the only girl in that room with us. And like the rest of the artists, I would write a song for her, or whoever was in there, Aaron Neville or Benny Spellman or whoever else, and then we would record it just like it was. Just like that. We did the same thing every day. I felt a very special connection to the artists I worked with, but I didn’t pay much attention to what happened after the record left us.”

We never tried to keep up with any America

“I haven’t ever lived anyplace else, but I’ve always thought that in America, these special pockets are everywhere. There is something very special happening in Memphis. And there is something very special happening in Nashville. And in Texas. But I do know we feel very special in New Orleans as well and very tight knitted. I think one thing that has held New Orleans closer to each other than some other places is our stubbornness about the pace we move at.

We never tried to keep up with any America, or how fast things were going, or how big the amps were getting. We like the acoustic world very much, and I think the brass bands have something to do with that. When you march up and down the street, that has to be acoustic, of course. So we have stayed closer to an earthier concept than some other places that plugged into the big hum. And I’m not saying that is better or worse. It’s nice to have all these different gardens in America, and New Orleans is one of them. And I am glad that I was fortunate enough to be from that one.

Today, New Orleans is great. New Orleans is up for the task. The guys are in front of Jackson Square right now, jamming, and the trombone is sliding and the hat is on the ground with some dollars in it and they can have a second line band parade any time. In fact they had one a few days ago. We are up for it and the spirit is very high. The spirit didn’t get drowned. The spirit got baptized. Very solid things got drowned, but not the spirit of New Orleans. Everyone didn’t come back on the same train–never does. But everyone is coming back. One way or another.”

A knock on the dressing room door stops Toussaint mid-thought. The road manager walks in. Time’s up. Toussaint stands. He offers his hand. He walks up the stairs to the stage and takes his place at the piano. The monitor is fixed. Everything sounds great.

–Ari Surdoval


Chooglin’s Red-Eyed Soul


Chooglin’. It’s a verb, baby—as in, to choogle. Just check your Creedence American Dictionary, it’s right there: “to ball and have a good time,” an act to “keep on” or continue. Or better yet, check the Minneapolis octet that bears the name. To them, Chooglin’ means the Soul Train getting robbed by the James Gang, Kiss on 78 speed and the MC5 tearing into Blood, Sweat and Tears. All at once. With a bleating horn section and ferocious guitar playing, the band is a boogie-rock juggernaut that has the guts and the skills to deliver greasy, proto-Stax soul with as much power and conviction as their relentless, riff-driven rockers.

Formed in 2005 by guitarists and singers Brian Vanderwerf and Jesse Tomlinson, from Twin City contenders the Midnight Evils, as a rollicking but conventional two-guitars-bass-and-drums lineup, Chooglin’ made their official debut in November 2005, opening up for Reigning Sound and the Detroit Cobras. Their show garnered some early local praise, but the band hit their sonic stride a month later when they were joined by a three trombone and trumpet horn section that had been assembled for a one-off performance of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for a local club’s cover band contest. The full Chooglin’ line-up—Vanderwerf and Tomlinson on guitar and vocals, bassist Jeff Johnson (since replaced by Paul Diorio), drummer Shawn Walker, trombonists Harold Longley, Steve Erickson, and Zach Zins, and trumpet player Bob DeBoer—was soon unleashed on an unsuspecting public in a round of now legendary high-octane live shows.

“Yeah, we can get pretty high energy,” laughs Vanderwerf. “Kinda Mach 10 compared to the record. We all come from punk rock, but you know, when I get asked what we sound like, I just say ‘rock and roll.’”

Considering the blistering opener of Chooglin’s Big Legal Mess debut Sweet Time, “Mach 10 compared to the record” is a little terrifying to consider. Weaving ragged guitar and horn lines together at a breakneck pace, songs like “Take Your Sweet Time,” “Airport Bar,” and “Tonight Alright” careen between soul and early metal. Vanderwerf’s gruff, soul-shouter vocals veer from heartbreak to sleaze and back again, while Tomlinson’s blistering guitar playing stitches all the disparate elements together—making Iron Maiden guitar gallup and Hi Records horns sit together seamlessly, and sound strangely natural together.

“There’s so many guys in the band, we all bring something to it,” Vanderwerf says. “We get a lot of comparisons to 70s rock, but I think we have more of an R&B thing going on. Jesse is an amazing guitarist, and he is writing all the time. Shawn our drummer likes more aggressive stuff, like punk rock and weird two-piece metal. And I’m a huge Stones fan, so I’m sure that comes through. But most good rock and roll is loud and fast”

Very true—but for a band that rocks this hard, it is a testament to Chooglin’s musical ambition that some of the real gems on Sweet Time are when they slow down a little. Gritty ballads like “Another Land,” “Nexium of Interest” and “Royal Vengeance,” showcase the power of the full line-up—the swaying melodicism of the horns, the songs’ dynamic arrangements, and the range and emotion of Vanderwerf’s voice.

“We started out as just straight up, balls-to-the-wall rock, but now we’re trying to write different stuff,” Vanderwerf says. “And since we have the horns, we want to use them for more than just accenting the rock songs. I love the newer slower tunes, cause we’re doing something different, but I think we pull it off. I think we can say to ourselves now we can try different stuff and not suck at it. ”

And then he laughs and says, “But sometimes I listen to the lyrics and think, ‘God what a bunch of big babies.’”

Discovered by Big Legal Mess while playing a show with Fat Possum artists Hezekiah Early and Elmo Williams during the Deep Blues Festival, Chooglin’ recorded Sweet Time at Minneapolis’ legendary Creation Studios—home of everything from the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” to the Replacements’ Tim and several Husker Du records. Inspired by the close-knit Twin Cities music scene that launched the Replacements and Husker Du, Chooglin’ exhibit a classic Minneapolis band trait—a musical restlessness that keeps them from repeating themselves, and a total refusal to do anything that pigeonholes them.

“I try to be open-minded, and not old man about it,” Vanderwerf says. “But a lot of new stuff just bores me. We go around and we see lots of the same shit. You know, you show up and see the band posters and they have like flames and iron crosses and skulls all over them. And then, watching a lot of these bands live, it’s like God—c’mon, bring it, you know? Get it into it. That’s why I like doing some of these slower songs. It opens us up to try different stuff. I think we raised the bar a little, doing things in a more musical way than just rocking out all the time. But we like to jump around and stuff too. It’s gonna be a real struggle when we go out on the road.”

–Ari Surdoval

Chooglin’, makin’ it after all, and doing “Father Time” at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry.